This free online game claims to "inoculate" you against disinformation by teaching you how it works

Harmony Square is a "game about fake news." As the player, you take on the role of the town's Chief Disinformation Officer, and it's your job to sow dissent and stoke the tensions in town through the use of social media, troll bot farms, and deceptive news sources. Are you up to the challenge?

This free online game was actually created by psychologists from the University of Cambridge, with some support from the US Department of State's Global Engagement Center and Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). According to one research paper:

The perceived reliability of misinformation dropped an average of 16% in those who completed Harmony Square compared to their assessment prior to playing. The game also reduced willingness to share fake news with others by 11%. Importantly, the players' own politics — whether they leaned left or right — made no difference.

According to the creators, the game "inoculates" against disinformation through a method they call "pre-bunking," which they describe as a sort of "psychological vaccine." In their words:

"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 Dr Sander van der Linden, Director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making lab and senior author of the new study.

Twitter has started using a "pre-bunk" approach: highlighting types of fake news likely to be encountered in feeds during the US election. However, researchers argue that familiarising people with techniques behind misinformation builds a "general inoculation," reducing the need to rebut each individual conspiracy.

Take all of this with a grain of salt; even in the most charitable reading, it is still its own form of propaganda.

That being said, it's still a pretty interesting game to play, and it only takes about 10 minutes to make it through all 4 levels (you can also go back to the beginning and try different propaganda approaches, if you'd prefer). If nothing else, it deftly demonstrates how easy — and toxic — it is to gamify disinformation in this way, and just how quickly the dopamine fix works when you're the one feeding the social media monster. Even with the best intentions, it's easy to find yourself getting carried away by pouring gasoline on the fire; soon enough, that fire takes on a life of its own, too, growing into something far beyond your control.

I can't speak to how well it actually "prebunks" or "inoculates," though, and I'd frankly be scared to share this game with my most crazed MAGA relatives, for fear that they'd take the wrong lessons away from it.

Harmony Square

Game 'pre-bunks' political misinformation by letting players undermine democracy [University of Cambridge / Science Daily]

People Spot Misinformation Better After Playing A New Game Where They Undermine Democracy [Alison Escalante / Forbes]