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Can People Be “Inoculated” Against Online Nonsense?

From the Marshall Memo
By Kim Marshall

The article: “A New Way to Inoculate People Against Misinformation” by Jon Roozenbeek, Melisa Basol, and Sander van der Linden in Behavioral Scientist, February 22, 2021; the authors are at,, and

In this article in Behavioral Scientist, Jon Roozenbeek, Melisa Basol, and Sander van der Linden (University of Cambridge, U.K.) say that “misinformation – both intentional and unintentional – is difficult to fight once it’s out in the digital wild.” Viral falsehoods take on a life of their own, often sticking in people’s minds and being accepted as factual – especially if they’re repeated.

Roozenbeek, Basol, and van der Linden suggest a novel approach for preventing the spread of misinformation: prebunking – giving people the tools to resist seduction by falsehoods and avoid playing a part in spreading them. This strategy is analogous to being immunized against a disease: vaccinations expose people to a weakened dose of a pathogen to trigger the production of antibodies that fight a full-fledged onslaught of germs. Prebunking exposes people to a watered-down version of a piece of misinformation to build resistance to more-virulent manipulation.

Prebunking sounds promising, but it isn’t helpful if it’s too narrow, building resistance to only one type of junk information. How can people get better at spotting and squelching a broader spectrum? Researchers believe the best strategy is to build awareness of the most common manipulative techniques, so people understand the ways in which they are vulnerable and become savvier at pushing back. Roozenbeek, Basol, van der Linden, and their colleagues designed a series of free online games that have been played over a million times around the world:

  • Bad News – Players are exposed to six common misinformation techniques, including emotional buzzwords like “horrific” and “terrifying,” all of which get people jazzed up about spreading information.
  • Harmony Square – Produced by the Department of Homeland Security, this game targets election misinformation and puts players in the role of a “bad guy” trying to stir up conflict in a community. “There’s no better way to inoculate yourself than to walk a mile in the shoes of someone trying to dupe you,” say the authors.
  • Go Viral! – Designed in the U.K., Go Viral! focuses on Covid-19 misinformation, addressing fearmongering, using fake experts, and coming up with conspiracy theories.

The games are designed to make people realize how vulnerable they are and build the skills necessary to identify, argue against, and prevent the spread of harmful misinformation.

Roozenbeek, Basol, and van der Linden report preliminary results showing that after playing the games, people are more skeptical of manipulative social media messages, more confident in their own judgment, and less likely to share dubious information. The downsides: people need “booster shots” of game-playing because their resistance tends to atrophy; people need help identifying high-quality, credible news – perhaps they become skeptical of everything; and there’s the perennial challenging of reaching the people who would benefit most from the intervention.

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