Gamifying Disinformation Mitigation

Academic Incubator

Bottom Line Up Front: gamification can promote and scale disinformation mitigation by lowering the threshold of collaboration across different demographic groups.

The Cipher Brief’s Academic Incubator partners with national security-focused programs from colleges and Universities across the country to share the thinking of the next generation of national security leaders.

Yi-ting Lien is currently a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is also a former spokesperson for President Tsai Ing-wen’s re-election campaign office and a former staffer at the Presidential office and the National Security Council of Taiwan.

Elizabeth Lange is an MA student and Kerry Fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, where she studies the intersection between influence operations and cybersecurity in the context of U.S.-China relations. Libby previously worked as the lead English speechwriter and social media manager for Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.

Doowan Lee is a senior advisor to the Institute for Security and Technology (IST) and adjunct professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. He leverages emerging AI technologies to empower open society and support national security.

ACADEMIC INCUBATOR — “Humor over Rumor”
“Stop hoarding tissues since the paper you see here is enough for you to wipe your butt for 300 years!(可以讓你七卡臣約300年)” This was a caption Taiwanese Economic Minister Shen Jong-chin wrote in a video of his visit to a tissue factory, in response to rumors that toilet paper supplies were running low because they were being used to make face masks, which sparked panic buying in Taiwan. His uncouth but true statement went viral on social media platforms. Being capable of making creative and rapid responses like this- a strategy called “humor over rumor” – is now a common practice among Taiwanese officials given the ubiquity of disinformation campaigns the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) has launched to target the island nation.

This is just one example of how the Taiwanese government has harnessed gamification to fight disinformation. And its impacts are anything but trivial. A company spokesperson at Facebook previously revealed that the government’s clarifications often traveled more broadly than false news did on its platform. Such efficient and innovative tactics don’t have a long history in Taiwan. The prominence of gamification in dispelling misinformation grew only after a nationwide election in 2018 that showed evidence of extensive meddling by the CCP.

The CCP’s disinformation campaign in 2018 was not an isolated incident. Taiwan was ranked as the country most exposed to foreign disinformation in a 2019 study by the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. As the CCP’s testing ground for global influence operations, Taiwan offers a notable example of how gamification has greatly facilitated disinformation mitigation and broader digital transparency.

Gamification and Disinformation Mitigation

Gamification is the integration of game mechanics into a non-game environment in order to give it a game-like feel, motivating users to accomplish tasks in a given context. The application of such an approach has been increasingly popular.

We define gamification in this discussion as a strategy that entails designing responses to disinformation in a way that creates similar experiences to those experienced when playing games. Gamifying disinformation mitigation could effectively accelerate solutions adoption as it motivates and engages the audience in the behavior change process that boosts authentic interactivity between disseminators and receivers of online messages. Such interactivities are crucial to increasing genuine engagement, and therefore, to further decentralizing joint efforts in combatting disinformation.

“Memes” are one medium that exemplify the idea of gamification. While there’s no single format that memes must follow, memes are often entertaining and playful -which help them to spark viral sensations online.

The virality of memes can be a double-edged sword. This was exemplified by the Russian trolls who allegedly waged meme warfare to “divide America” during the 2016 US elections. It’s true that memes sometimes fall prey to malicious purveyors and become major vehicles for disinformation. However, the designs of memes- lighthearted images embellished with short text- also point to a way out of the dilemma facing open societies across the world.

The notion of gamification essentially involves a sense of collaborativeness- which aims to decentralize the joint effort to overcome public indifference towards policy issues. Such indifference creates a fertile milieu for disinformation operations and therefore would be a root cause that needs to be addressed if we want to mitigate disinformation.

Taiwan’s “humor over rumor” strategy exemplifies how the government’s gamifying of policy announcements creates a sense of “active transparency”, incentivizing citizens to pay more attention to its governance and be part of the effort to spread correct information.

The Taiwanese Innovation

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, the Taiwanese government has further incorporated a gamification strategy into daily policy announcements and updates on the latest developments in Taiwan. For example, daily notifications from the Ministry of Health’s Line channel (a popular messaging app in Taiwan) feature a Shiba inu, Zongchai (總柴,CEO-Shiba in English), as their “spokesperson” to share the latest news and statistics. The personified Zongchai introduces levity to a serious subject and has become something of a pandemic-fighting sidekick for Taiwanese citizens.

While there has been a significant increase in the dissemination of disinformation regarding the coronavirus outbreak in Taiwan since early 2020, its harm has been limited as people can debunk rumors such as “Corpses are now everywhere in Taiwan after thousands of people died because of the virus!” effectively with frequent updates from “Zongchai”. The channel, which now has more than 7.7 million subscribers, has served as the most relied upon source of information following a sudden escalation of cases in mid-May. While disinformation has surged in tandem with case numbers, its amplifying effects have been limited with constant reminders from the shiba spokesdog that people should “verify before forwarding messages”.

Some may argue that gamification is only effective within certain echo chambers, given that the majority of social media users are members of younger generations and gamified measures might not be enough to overcome generational communication barriers. Indeed, the promotion of content authenticity is only as effective as how far it can reach. However, such reach could be broadened as long as gamification successfully raises young people’s awareness to the point that they feel motivated to amplify the effects of the mitigation measures by sharing the truth offline with older members in their families. Gamification has the potential to bridge the demographic divides in the information environment by appealing to social media users of all ages. For instance, the government frequently shares “zhang bei“ images (長輩圖), a niche genre of kitschy graphics usually designed and shared profusely by boomer-age Taiwanese social media users. While frequently forwarded as a daily greeting by older users, “zhang bei” images are considered to be goofy and comical by the young social media generation. When government fanpages post “zhang bei” images, an action item is created at the same time for young users to share this with “zhang bei” (長輩, elders in English) in their lives. During the pandemic, some also voluntarily designed their own “zhang bei” images to disseminate government instructions on pandemic mitigation measures. Another way of overcoming communication barriers is to use language that transcends disciplines and age groups. For example, the Taiwanese Shiba spokesperson illustrated the practice of “social distancing” by saying “when you’re indoors, keep three shibas away from others; when outdoors, keep two of them away”. Such easy-to-understand comparisons make it both simple and entertaining to follow the Shiba’s instructions.

Popular song lyrics are also very common in the Taiwanese government’s policy announcements- for example, when the Center for Disease Control launched the name-based rationing system for purchases of masks, Premier Su Tseng-chang incorporated song lyrics of a popular Taiwanese singer, A-Mei, into the instructions, in order to draw more public attention to the policy. Such approaches have not only greatly increased public reactions and engagements in governance, but also attracted the attention of major traditional outlets including newspapers and television stations, enhancing the effectiveness of this strategy in heightening awareness about the policy among the public. Through making its citizens well-informed of important policy issues, the Taiwanese government builds resilience against disinformation from the ground up.

Those who seek to mitigate disinformation can engineer memes, integrating gamifying elements to reinforce some of the signature characteristics memes already have-intelligible, humorous, and attractive- so that those characteristics can be used to the advantage of disinformation mitigation, namely, drumming up public interest in fighting back against disinformation. Gamifying these measures means not only making the policy announcements widely engaging in the first place, but also continuously bringing citizens into a joint effort to scotch the rumor. In other words, disinformation mitigation could be bolstered by gamification both reactively and preemptively- a preemptive approach that makes the public well-informed of important policy announcements would build a natural shield against disinformation campaigns; and a high awareness of such problems would help citizens detect factually incorrect information as well as distinguish between credible and suspicious claims.

Adopting culturally resonant means of disseminating fact-checking in a gamified way is a policy option that more governments should consider. Disinformation has exploited pop culture to accelerate its reach and speed. Combating disinformation should also leverage similar efficient information pathways to counter malign content. In the end, gamification can engender the much-needed scale and parity of competitive information operations. While content authenticity matters in disinformation mitigation, so does the efficient delivery mechanism of gamification.

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