Updated: May 9
What's going on everyone?
Recently while browsing through social media, I came across a free web-based game on media literacy that went viral. Developed by DROG, In collaboration with the University of Cambridge, Bad News acts as an introduction to the various strategies that disinformation campaigns employ throughout social media platforms. This is something I know I will bring into my Social Studies class next year, especially during the upcoming elections. You can access the lesson plan here. To quote from their Information Sheet,
The term ‘fake news’ has become ubiquitous in media coverage. While it certainly has its uses, it doesn’t do a very good job at describing the full breadth of the concept. What we call ‘fake news’ refers to news that has been entirely fabricated or made up. However, a news item doesn’t have to be entirely made up to be insidious or misleading. To capture the broader scope of the various ways to mislead audiences, we prefer to use the term ‘disinformation.’ Unlike ‘misinformation,’ which is simply information that is incorrect, disinformation involves the intent to deceive. Propaganda, then, is disinformation with an explicit or implicit political agenda.
People on average spend over two hours each day on social media. Our students are no exception. An unintended consequence of social media is that people tend to place themselves in a bubble of information. We see, like, share, or upvote posts that are in agreement with our own biases and perspectives. Over time we tend to see less and less of ideas that can potentially challenge these biases. This gradually pushes people more and more to the fringes of some, often political, ideology. Disinformation plays a large role in this. People are less likely to fact check something that lines up with their own beliefs. Bad News can help get students thinking critically about the 'news' and information they come in contact with on social media. It sheds light on some of the tactics utilized by people who engage in misinformation and disinformation campaigns.
I, and I suspect most other teachers, were never taught how to filter through the vast plethora of information we come in contact with. This game breaks down these concepts in a way that is both accessible and funny. The game puts the player in the shoes of a propagandist. Someone holds your hand as you create your own 'fake news' website, foster an army of trolls to help spread disinformation, create bots to help increase your credibility, and attack those who dare to question your posts. The game chooses simple topics that most of us are to familiar with (i.e. climate change, vaccinations, flat Earth, and Donald Trump) to illustrate the patterns followed by many propagandists. From these topics the player will has the opportunity to choose what to post and how to go about spreading disinformation.
There is no 'winning' in this game. Any time you try to act morally, the game will stop you and make you act like a troll. The game makes you think of ways to lie to people in order to gain more followers and credibility. There is no room for facts here. Instead you post controversial headlines, from a list of options, aimed at exploiting people's emotions. Happiness loses you followers. You need to get people afraid and angry. You need to be careful, however, because lying too blatantly will lose you followers as well. You need to build up your followers' trust before you start posting anything too crazy.
You earn 6 badges throughout the game; impersonation, discredit, polarization, emotion, trolling, and conspiracy. These are 6 trademark strategies consistently found across ALL social media platforms. Many people learn by doing, and getting students to partake in these actions in safe and non-threatening way will help them recognize these tactics in their day-to-day lives. The more successful they are at implementing these strategies in the game, the higher their score will be. This also provides some opportunity for competition to see who can gain the most followers. While the topics in the game are political, there are opportunities to present propaganda that is on both the Right and Left of the political spectrum. This is important because while it is okay for teachers to provide their own opinions, they must also provide multiple perspectives. Plus you don't want to be on the receiving end of any backlash from angry parents.
Provided in the information sheet for Bad News is a section on Inoculation Theory. They state
that people are able to build up a resistance against false or misleading information by being presented with a weakened version of a misleading argument before being exposed to the “real” information. One can see this as giving people a kind of “vaccine” against misleading information. If you can recognize it, you can resist it. The Bad News game draws on inoculation theory for its theoretical justification.
Playing the game helps build this resistance. For the sake of this lesson, I will have my students play through the game two times. First time is practice and requires following a lot of instructions while the second contains more independent decisions. These conversations don't stop with the end of this lesson. Bad News is merely an introduction to media literacy. Media literacy needs to be embedded throughout any Social Studies course. It's not really a choice if we want our students to be successful critical thinkers.
Thanks for reading,