Cambridge University launches new anti-fake news game to teach online users how to keep misinformation from going viral

  • Cambridge University has launched a new online game that educates players on the dangers of fake news by plunging them into a world of misinformation.
  • The aim behind it is to stop the spread of fake news by pre-bunking it.
  • The game takes just ten minutes to play and runs you through four short levels that expose the top manipulation techniques witnessed in today’s online world.

It’s not always easy to tell real news apart from fake news, especially in a world where misinformation trends faster than facts. However, a new game by Cambridge University called Harmony Square wants to change that status quo by getting ahead of the problem — or ‘pre-bunking’ fake news.

“Trying to debunk misinformation after it has spread is like shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted. By pre-bunking, we aim to stop the spread of fake news in the first place,” said Sander van der Linden, Director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making lab and senior author of the new study.

graphical user interface, text, application

© Harmony Square screenshot

Exposing the top manipulation techniques to make fake news go viralHarmony Square is based on the findings of several studies that show how gamified approaches to digital literacy significantly reduce susceptibility to fake news and online conspiracies.

The underlying logic is simple. Exposing people to small ‘doses’ of some of the most common techniques used to spread fake news within the game helps them better identify and filter out misinformation when they interact with it in real life. Experts call this the ‘inoculation theory’.

© Harmony Square screenshot

The game takes just ten minutes to play and runs you through four short levels that expose the top manipulation techniques witnessed in today’s online world.

This includes:

  • trolling to provoke outrage
  • exploiting emotional language to create anger and fear
  • artificially amplifying reach through bots and fake followers
  • creating and spreading conspiracy theories
  • polarizing audiences

graphical user interface, text, application, chat or text message

© Harmony Square screenshot

Does Harmony Square really work?University of Cambridge psychologists created the game with support from the US Department of State’s Global Engagement Center and Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).

To prove that it works, the researchers conducted a randomised controlled trial of 681 participants. They asked the participants to rate the reliability of headlines and social media posts, some of which were real and others were not.

graphical user interface, application

© Harmony Square screenshot

Half of them were then asked to play Harmony Square, while the other half engaged with Tetris before being shown another series of posts. The participants who played Harmony Square saw their perceived reliability of misinformation drop by an average of 16%. Their willingness to share fake news also reduced by 11%.

More importantly, the study published in Harvard Misinformation Review found that the participants own political views, whether liberal or conservative, did not have a bearing in their attitude towards fake news.

graphical user interface, application

© Harmony Square screenshot

“The effect size suggests that if the population was split equally like the study sample, 63% of the half that played the game would go on to find misinformation significantly less reliable, compared to just 37% of the half left to navigate online information without the inoculation of Harmony Square,” said Van der Linden.


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