4 August 2018
The NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Latvia—a hub focused on countering misinformation campaigns or NATO’s very own in-house propaganda unit, depending on your perspective—has launched an online game to help citizens learn to identify fake news.
The game, called The News Hero and hosted on Facebook, allows players to assume the role of a news editor who is sent stories and must decide if they are real or fake. Most examples appear to be actual headlines that have been posted online in the past. Players can use a fact-checking tool which will provide hints on how to verify incoming stories and, as the game progresses, can also engage assistants to help them make the right decisions.
In recent years, NATO member states have pointed to various Russian news outlets as purveyors of misinformation designed to undermine faith in western institutions. For example, Russia's Internet Research Agency, a trolling factory based in St Petersburg, had a budget of $1.2 million and fuelled ‘information warfare, during the 2016 US presidential election according to a February indictment by special counsel Robert Mueller. And according to an April 2017 report by the Centre for European Policy Analysis, "The Kremlin promotes conspiratorial discourse and uses disinformation to pollute the information space, increase polarization and undermine democratic debate".
Of course, manipulation of the news for propaganda purposes is not the sole prerogative of Russia or other NATO competitors’. It is important to look at all media and government statements, including those in NATO member states, with a critical eye. As Piers Robinson argues, “the output of ‘our’ media is presumed to be objective and truthful. Moreover, the impression given is that our governments engage in truthful ‘public relations’, ‘strategic communication’ and ‘public diplomacy’ while the Russians lie through ‘propaganda’”.
The NATO centre in Latvia “hopes to burst the bubble of an elite dominated discussion about critical thinking and empower the society to become more conscious users of media through a gamified approach,” the centre said in a statement.
According to an interview with the developer, Nika Aleksejeva, the game took eight people four months to make. To play you must give over your publicly available Facebook information, which according to a privacy statement is only used anonymously to measure the game's effectiveness. Ironically, Facebook itself has been heavily criticized for doing too little to clamp down on fake news spreading on its platform.
In the final analysis, the game is a rather anaemic foray into the disinformation battleground, with very little public interest. Since its launch on the 23 July, it has received 241 ‘likes’ and 10 ‘shares’. Predictably, RT, the Russian 24/7 English-language news channel, gave it short shrift in this article. And this review is even more withering.