Harmony Square – Exposing Disinformation Tactics and Techniques

May 14, 2021 / by Cassie Baralis

Category: Community, Guest Blog Post

Welcome to Harmony Square, a peaceful town where residents have a healthy obsession with democracy. Players are hired as Chief Misinformation Officer and tasked with fomenting internal divisions and pitting its residents against each other, all while gathering as many “likes” and “followers” as they can. Meanwhile, as the game evolves, the player’s misinformation campaigns cause the square to gradually fall into mayhem.

Harmony Square is a 10-minute online game adapted from Bad News, a game developed by DROG in partnership with researchers at the University of Cambridge that leverages the theory of attitudinal inoculation. The original Bad News game guides players through the process of creating popular disinformation campaigns that gain followers and credibility rankings. By putting users in the role of an antagonist developing viral disinformation campaigns, the game aims to build awareness and resistance to falling prey to disinformation in real life. An early study of 15,000 participants who played the original Bad News game revealed an increase in their psychological resistance to inauthentic or manipulated information.

Harmony Square is based on the formulation of Bad News and other similar gamified counter-misinformation interventions. Drawing on inoculation theory, these games aim to build cognitive resistance against common forms of manipulation that people may encounter online by preemptively warning and exposing people to weakened doses of these techniques in a controlled environment. Distinct from Bad News, Harmony Square focuses more on how misinformation can be used to achieve political polarization, for example, by fueling outgroup hostility, a critical element of both organic misinformation and targeted disinformation campaigns, particularly during contentious political events.

As players evolve through the four stages of Harmony Square, they learn about the following manipulation techniques:

  • Trolling people (i.e. deliberately provoking people to react emotionally, thus evoking outrage.)
  • Exploiting emotional language, e.g., trying to make people afraid or angry about a particular topic.
  • Artificially amplifying the reach and popularity of certain messages, e.g. through social media bots or by buying fake followers.
  • Creating and spreading conspiracy theories, e.g., blaming a small, secretive, and nefarious organization for events going on in the world.
  • Polarizing audiences by deliberately emphasizing and magnifying inter-group differences.

To determine the efficacy of Harmony Square, a research team at the University of Cambridge tested the players’ reactions to content labeled as mis- or disinformation. Specifically, the team assessed if people become better at spotting troll posts, exploitative emotional language use, conspiratorial content, and content that deliberately seeks to polarize different groups. The research team conducted a mixed randomized controlled trial (international sample, N = 681) and asked users to react to 16 various social media posts based on a set of questions both before and after the intervention. Of these 16 posts, 8 were examples of “real” manipulative content while 8 posts were made-up to isolate each manipulation technique and to account for the possibility that participants may have seen the “real” manipulative content before.

Several key findings emerged, reinforcing Harmony Square’s effectiveness as a tool to inoculate people against online manipulation:

  • Finding 1: People who play Harmony Square find manipulative social media content significantly less reliable after playing compared to a control group.
  • Finding 2: People who played Harmony Square are significantly more confident in their ability to spot manipulative content in social media posts, compared to a control group.
  • Finding 3: People who played Harmony Square are significantly less likely to share manipulative content with others.

Overall, the research team found that Harmony Square is effective at reducing some of the harmful effects that manipulative content can have on individuals — and does so in a fun and interactive manner. The longevity of the effects of playing Harmony Square has not yet been evaluated, though research has shown that gamified inoculation effects can persist for months.

To play Harmony Square, click here.

For more information on Harmony Square, click here.

Note: Harmony Square was developed with support from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the U.S. Department of State’s Global Engagement Center.

To learn more about gamified education tools to counter disinformation, sign-up to Disinfo Cloud.

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