In our age, the social networks and airwaves are awash in fake news and rumors of fake news. In that context, it seems, people respond by seeking refuge in their own fortresses. That means doubling down on their core ideological beliefs and rejecting anything that comes from a different perspective. As I’ve noted before on these pages, we are in a new frontier for persuasion. With people being so dug-in, and with the sources that would in normal times serve as a check on what is true and false being so distrusted, is there any hope for persuasion on a decision that touches on a politicized issue?

A couple of Cambridge researchers think the answer might be “Yes,” and think that the answer might come down to, of all things, an online game. The two psychologists, (Roozenbeek & van der Linden, 2019), took a look at individuals playing a game called “Bad News” that was developed in collaboration with a Dutch media platform, DROG. In the game, which readers can play here (it takes around 15 minutes), you assume the role of a producer of fake news, and learn to apply six techniques that are commonly used in promoting online misinformation: polarization, invoking emotions, spreading conspiracy theories, trolling people online, deflecting blame, and impersonating fake accounts. The goal is to get followers and to maximize one’s credibility. Interestingly, the game incentivizes the bad behavior it is trying to target, as players earn badges for deception, trolling, polarization, and fear appeals, for example. You will lose credibility and followers if you attempt to adhere to ethical journalistic principles. Still, however, the game works by preemptively debunking, “prebunking,” these techniques.

The Research:

Roozenbeek and van der Linden conducted a study of 15,000 people who had played the game. They wanted to see if playing the game serves as a form of inoculation, reasoning that a participative awareness of the techniques of online news manipulation might serve to make people more savvy consumers.

They found that it did. Independent of education, age, political leaning, and cognitive style, playing the game improved people’s ability to spot and resist misinformation. They noted, “We find preliminary evidence that the process of active inoculation through playing the Bad News game significantly reduced the perceived reliability of tweets that embedded several common online misinformation strategies.”

The Implications for Inoculation:

If you take the fifteen minutes to play the “Bad News” game, you’ll notice that the player quickly figures out that the “right” choice at each juncture is to set aside ethics and just go with a move that will maximize the number of people following, clicking on, and commenting on your content. And, in various ways, that means lying.

But the game works in exposing these forms of lying because it encourages an active engagement with the specific techniques of misinformation. After all, it is one thing to know that there are lies out there, and another thing to participate in their construction and propagation. The educational value of the game, as demonstrated in this research, is that it teaches the techniques of manipulation, and helps you see them later.

Owing to the rules of evidence, we are unlikely to see straight-up fake news being used in court. But we’re still likely to see a role for deeply ingrained factual beliefs, the products of an individual’s news diet, that influence the ways jurors will trust or distrust evidence. Based on the research demonstrating some success in sensitization, there are a couple of implications for litigators wanting to preemptively debunk misleading information in trial.

It Is Best when it Precedes the Misinformation

Obviously, the pre in prebunking is key. While there might be a therapeutic purpose in providing a vaccine after an infection, the best use is to provide it in advance. The research article details some of the difficulties in correcting misinformation after it has been received, most notably that confirmation bias creates an incentive and a mechanism to reinforce views that we have already heard and accepted.

For that reason, the best advice for both sides is that, if you suspect your target audience will hear misleading information, address that at the earliest opportunity, ideally before your adversary has fully fleshed it out. A defendant in litigation obviously does not have a chance to get there first. However, a defendant focused on prebunking in opening or in voir dire can still get an answer out before the plaintiff’s evidence has come in.

Highlight the Strategy, Not Just the Result

In the case of the “Bad News” game, it is important to note that it likely works because it is a game. Rather than just informing readers about various techniques of manipulation, information that is already widely available on the internet, the game invites players to participate in those techniques. That activity is what makes all the difference.

Learning from that, it is important for legal debunkers to think of all of the ways that the jurors listening can participate in the inoculation. This means that it is a good idea to not just say, “You’re going to hear this…and here is why it is wrong…” but to instead say, “You’re going to hear this…and here is why the other side wants you to hear it… and here is why it might even sound right…but here is why it’s wrong…”

Naturally, you can’t replicate the game-playing aspect of it. But the more you can encourage active engagement in the process — the how and why of another party’s predicted attempts to mislead, the better your chance of effectively prebunking it.