Aida is a 62-year-old retired grandmother living in Uganda. She receives a video on her smartphone forwarded by her cousin of a child crying after getting a measles vaccine. Should she forward it?
That’s the decision players of Choose Your Own Fake News, an online game targeted at tackling disinformation across East Africa, have to make. The game was developed by Neema Iyer, founder and director of Pollicy, a group supporting civic technology and fighting disinformation based in Kampala, Uganda.
The game, which was released in early June, is aimed at improving media literacy across East Africa, which suffers from the pernicious effects of dis- and misinformation – deliberately and accidentally spreading fake news. It looks at three issues that are particularly pressing in East Africa, but also relevant around the entire world: election violence, vaccinations and job scams.
“I wanted people to have these discussions in a way people want to have it, not in a way that is exclusive, high-level discourse”
“I think we’re in a time of information overload,” said Iyer. “I really wanted to move away from the way academia and civil society focus on this report. They put out reports that remain academic and inaccessible to large proportions of any country. Some of the terminology is inaccessible. I wanted people to have these discussions in a way people want to have it, not in a way that is exclusive, high-level discourse.”
The subject matter was chosen because it’s of particular concern to east African countries, which struggle with vaccination program uptake – a recent vaccination drive in Uganda was spoiled by disinformation about the potential risks of the jab – with election violence (there are elections in Uganda and Tanzania this year and next) and with job precarity and associated scams.
It’s designed to target those most vulnerable to disinformation – the people who perhaps wouldn’t read reports put out by think tanks and governments – distilling the information in the most digestible way for them.
“Initiatives like this one that focus on media literacy and community engagement are our best bet for countering disinformation,” said Julia Reda, fellow at the Berkman Klein Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and a former member of the European Parliament. “Not all disinformation violates the law, so any approach to the issue that focuses on deleting or blocking disinformation has a chilling effect on legal speech, especially the work of journalists and activists.”
In the absence of greater media literacy, fake news and information can abound. It’s exacerbated by the output of countries including Russia and China, which have recently been singled out by European Commission vice president Vera Jourova as key disseminators of disinformation, particularly around the coronavirus.
That disinformation is often presented in easily accessible formats designed to spread quickly and broadly across social media. Choose Your Own Fake News, by adopting the format of a game, is designed to fight fire with fire.
“Initiatives like this one that focus on media literacy and community engagement are our best bet for countering disinformation”
It’s not the only game that has been developed to try and increase digital literacy around disinformation. The BBC, the UK’s public service broadcaster, developed iReporter, a game targeted at teenagers, in 2018 to try and educate them on how to separate real news from fake news.
Iyer’s game could be a model for others to follow, and she’s hopeful that the game itself will spread beyond east Africa. Translations into French and Swahili are planned while she’s been in talks with lawyers to provide reputable information on disinformation laws by country, and case studies of prosecutions, to players once they complete the game, should they want to learn more.
But the goal is to get more people thinking about the risks of being hoodwinked by disinformation and to better communicate what many policymakers already know: that this is a real and present danger to societies. “I hope this opens a conversation with academics and policy folks about using non-traditional means to get across important information,” said Iyer.