Interview with Melisa Basol
Over recent years, online misinformation has grown exponentially, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, to become a real threat to public trust in what is available online. Some innovative solutions to the so-called “Infodemic” have been suggested or tried.
The Mobile Century (TMC) spoke to Melisa-Silem Basol, a PhD candidate and Gates Scholar at Cambridge University. Melisa is part of a team which developed and launched an online game called Go Viral! to counter online misinformation through educating users about the tricks and motives of creators of online misinformation.
TMC: Melisa, explain what you are studying now, and a brief description of why you became interested in the subject of online misinformation?
Melisa: I study persuasion and resistance to persuasion and apply inoculation theory, often regarded as “the grandfather theory” of persuasion to the context of online misinformation. I was doing my Bachelor’s in Psychology at the time of the Brexit debate and when Donald Trump was elected to the US Presidency. I wanted to understand the role of false news in our attitude formation and political decision-making, as well as the threats it poses to our democratic processes.
TMC: Can you explain how you came to be a Gates scholar at Cambridge University, and the opportunity that this program has given you?
Melisa: I applied to the Gates Cambridge Scholarship and have been fortunate enough to join a community of brilliant individuals dedicated to using their curiosity and skills for the betterment of societies. I have also met many of my dearest friends through this community and have been able to join efforts such as Laugh4Change, a charitable unincorporated association which raises funds and relief aid for refugees while providing platforms for under-represented groups in comedy.
TMC: We are interested to learn how the research behind Go Viral! was undertaken, how the team worked together, and what your role in this effort was.
Melisa: This was definitely a team effort. We collaborated with DROG1 and Gusmanson on the development of the game itself and partnered with the UK Cabinet Office to facilitate its dissemination. We were lucky enough to have institutions such as WHO, UNICEF, and UN Verified help us spread “the psychological vaccine”.
Together with my colleagues at the Cambridge Decision- Making Research Lab, I developed the content and the scenarios of Go Viral!. I also helped translate it into German and led our published research on the efficacy of the game. To learn more about our research and methodology, visit: https:// journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/20539517211013868.
TMC: What are you hoping to achieve with this work; what results have there been so far, and ambitions for the Go Viral approach in the future in terms of tackling the “infodemic” and longer-term reduction of online misinformation?
Melisa: We’ve made some exciting progress with Go Viral!. Additionally, we’ve developed several other games and continue to adapt to the challenges of misinformation with renewed and optimised intervention strategies. Go Viral! is already available in 10+ languages and continues to attract players. Of course, there is no silver bullet against the threats posed by misinformation. Instead, we will need multi-layered defence mechanisms that, hopefully, pay attention to and leverage psychological insights. By making interventions free, entertaining, and much more scalable we hope that our work contributes to “psychological herd immunity”. That is, instead of trying to keep up with the vitality of misinformation, we hope that our pre-bunking intervention will help stop harmful content from going viral in the first place.
TMC: Many thanks for these important insights, Melisa. We wish you every success with your future studies and your continued work in applying psychological insights to address social challenges.
Interview by Vicki MacLeod
Protect Yourself and Others against COVID-19 Misinformation
Play GO VIRAL!
GO VIRAL! is a 5-minute game that helps protect you against COVID-19 misinformation. You’ll learn about some of the most common strategies used to spread false and misleading information about the virus. Understanding these tricks allows you to resist them the next time you come across them online. Scientists who worked with us on the development of GO VIRAL! found that playing the game significantly improves people’s ability to spot misinformation about COVID-19. Their study was published in the journal Big Data & Society.1
Users are encouraged to fight the spread of misinformation by challenging their friends and family to GO VIRAL!
The recommended age for Go Viral! is 15+. Although the game has received a PEGI-(Pan European Game Information System) age rating of 3 (meaning the game has been deemed for persons age 3 and up), the game does include some themes that may be interpreted as sensitive, especially to people under the age of 15. Parental consent should therefore be sought, where appropriate.
This game is supported by the WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION2 and is the product of a collaboration between the SOCIAL DECISION- MAKING LAB3 at the University of Cambridge, DROG4, BAD NEWS5, GUSMANSON, and the UK CABINET OFFICE6.
You can find the most common myths about COVID-19 debunked at the WHO COVID-19 website7.
Melisa-Silem Basol is a Gates Scholar and PhD Candidate in Psychology. At the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab, her research focuses on attitudes, persuasion, and resistance against misinformation through inoculation theory. Throughout her studies and through her associated work, she has initiated ways to contribute to societally contested issues, such as immigration and vaccinations. She is the Co-Founder of CUBIT, an inter-disciplinary initiative to leverage behavioural insights to tackle pressing societal challenges. Moreover, she won the WhatsApp Research Grant for Misinformation to develop interventions against the spread of harmful misinformation on WhatsApp in India, Brazil, and the UK. Similarily, in collaboration with the UK Cabinet Office (and supported by UNESCO, UN, and WHO), Melisa co-developed Go Viral!, a gamified intervention to combat the threat posed by COVID-19 misinformation. Melisa collaborates with the Stanford Health Communication Initiative and Duke University’s efforts to fight vaccine hesitancy. She also enjoys public engagement (e.g., on BBC World) and continues to advise governmental institutions (e.g. EU Commission, NATO) on evidence-based policy-making.