The NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence (NATO StratCom COE) is a NATO accredited multi-national organisation that conducts research, publishes studies, and provides strategic communications training for government and military personnel. The Centre has recently launched The News Hero, a Facebook game designed to teach users how to spot false or unreliable information online. Bryan Metzger, Assistant Project Manager of the game, explains more. 

“Actions speak louder than words,” is both a well-known and well-worn cliché. Yet this has not been the approach thus far of those who seek to combat disinformation campaigns in Europe and beyond. We at the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence are seeking to break that mould, advancing the conversation on disinformation and media literacy while maintaining our long-standing commitment to research. Thus far, the conversation on disinformation has been elite-dominated; we are seeking to break that bubble and empower individuals to learn media literacy for themselves. We are proud to have developed The News Hero, a Facebook game designed to teach users how to spot false or unreliable information online.

The origins of this game lie in a public hackathon organized by the NATO StratCom COE in May 2017. The hackathon aimed to develop prototypes of technical solutions that would prevent the spread of disinformation. Originally, we were going to develop a game that was to be cast as “Tinder for fake news,” in which a player would swipe right on a story if it was true and swipe left if it was false. Unfortunately, we soon realized that such a game did little to teach—rather than instil media literacy skills, the game actually reinforced existing biases. Additionally, we realized that fact checking is inherently boring, and that the game was lacking in typical features such as competition and progression through levels.

Thus, we decided to alter the game, creating the narrative of an aspiring news editor for the player to follow. Reward mechanisms, such as the accumulation of currency and the growing of market share, were added as well. Most crucial was the introduction of a fact checker, which provides hints to the player and reinforces good fact-checking behaviour.  The levels of the game as a whole reflect basic fact-checking practices, such as checking authors, verifying sources, and assessing the reliability of visual evidence.

So, how does the game work? The game is set in a virtual newsroom, and the player starts out as the aforementioned editor. The primary goal is to grow the market share of the newspaper, but this can only be done by publishing good and accurate information. The player is presented with news story after news story, and must choose to either accept or reject each one. Each of these news stories are real—that is to say, they are actual articles that were published online. Whether or not they contain accurate information is, of course, up to the judgement of the player. The fact-checker, presented on a tablet on the right side of the screen, is key to the functioning of the game and the gradual teaching of the player; for each article, the fact-checker presents important questions that the player should ask themselves before continuing. Most of these actually encourage the player to do their own fact-checking, including verifying dates and looking up events. As the player progresses through the three levels of the game, the focus of the fact-checking shifts to different ideas. All-in-all, the game is a simple way of teaching players some basic media literacy when reading articles online.

So far, we’ve received an interesting array of responses to the release of the game. While outlets such as Forbes and NBC News have conducted straightforward reporting on the game, RT has attempted to portray the game as the be-all and end-all of the NATO alliance’s strategy to combat disinformation, which is obviously not the case. Rather, we seek to understand the efficacy of methods such as gaming. Do players get better at spotting disinformation over time? To what degree? These questions and more will hopefully be answered through the results of a game performance analysis. Furthermore, we believe that by developing such a game, even if it does not single-handedly solve the problem, we are contributing to the eventual neutralization of the threat of disinformation.

While it’s undoubtedly important to understand such phenomena, we must also begin to take steps to inculcate ourselves against this threat—no form of increased security will ever fully deter or prevent future disinformation campaigns aimed at influencing electorates. Through both our work at the center and through our conferences, the most recent of which was in June of this year, we have come to understand the problem of fake news and disinformation as one that is primarily rooted in the human mind. Thus, this is where the solution must lie as well. Without fully engaging citizens at that level, we will ultimately fall victim to the chaos and discord sought by nefarious actors from abroad. Media literacy, as well as the ability of the general populace to resist such actors, will be key to the national security of our member states in the coming years.

Rumours, fake news, and lies have been around as long as mankind, but new information technology has made it possible for such things to spread at enormous speeds across various language communities and borders. The internet has connected people in a positive way, but it has also exposed vulnerabilities in open democracies. We see our game as a contribution to making democratic societies resilient to this nefarious disinformation. In terms of measuring the success of our efforts, we tend to view this as a long-term investment. Just as with campaigns to curb smoking or drunk driving, it will take a few years to see results as individuals change their behaviour. Nonetheless, we believe it to be an important effort.

This post gives the views of the author, and is not the position of the Media Policy Project nor of the London School of Economics.