Best Cases | Nov 6, 2020

Talk to me – Gamification to combat conspiracy theories

A game that enables constructive communication with conspiracy theorists. R&D Fellow at Media Lab Bayern, Victoria Schrank, has developed an ingenious idea. In this blog, she provides readers with an insight into how she developed the game.

Table of Contents

  1. Hold your tongue and show empathy
    1. Hold your tongue and show empathy
    2. Listen and show interest in understanding their point of view
    3. Ask, don’t preach

Spring 2020 marked the start of several major changes in the world. In March, swathes of the population lost their jobs, certain people were riddled with anxiety while others battled the new virus, COVID-19. From among the masses emerged an entirely new mindset. You may also have experienced seeing your friends or family members in a new light. But what can you do when someone you admire and worry about believes in COVID-19 conspiracy theories? I frankly couldn't believe it when one of my friends decided to enlighten me on the deep-state plot behind COVID-19 and insisted that the virus isn't real. On the one hand, she completely dismissed all of the arguments, facts and proper sources I countered her theory with. On the other hand, I knew simply calling her crazy wouldn’t achieve anything. After all, she is one of the smartest people I know. I struggled with this dilemma for weeks. What do you do when you find out one of your friends is a conspiracy theorist? Do you confront them, avoid the topic, or avoid them altogether?

That’s when I had a light-bulb moment. Why not develop a way to help people have constructive, less frustrating conversations with friends, partners or relatives who believe in conspiracy theories?

During my time researching at Media Lab Bayern, I conducted interviews with over 20 people from Europe, the US and Israel with relatives who believe in COVID-19 conspiracy theories. One thing they all had in common was that their relationships had substantially deteriorated as a result of the beliefs held by their relatives and friends.

The people I interviewed had tried out various ways of communicating, which made it clear that having better arguments don’t necessarily improve the chances of changing someone's opinion. Many of the people I spoke to had experienced defensive, and even aggressive behavior, when they had previously tried to confront their counterpart with arguments and facts. You can find a few examples below (*names have been changed):

  • Anna* from Amsterdam discusses the situation with her boyfriend: “Confronting him with facts just made things worse. He would get defensive.”
  • Linda* from Berlin on her father: “It only got worse when I responded with facts and arguments. For example: Directly saying something isn’t true, that facts aren't correct, personally attacking someone, criticizing theories or saying that what he believes in is nonsense.”
  • Tom* from Tel Aviv on the situation with his friend: “He makes fun of theories.”

I was able to detect a common pattern for the successful approaches. The people I interviewed reported back to me on what went well:

“Pointing out gaps or inconsistencies in their logic, being friendly” explained Adam from the US. Tom from Tel Aviv added: “Debunking false information by asking questions such as ‘Are you sure about that?’ or ‘Sounds a little bit like a conspiracy theory to me’.” Paul from Berlin reported some success by doing the following: “Showing empathy, sharing your personal experiences, not trying to change their opinion from the outset.”

Hold your tongue and show empathy

Here are my top 3 techniques for paving the way to more constructive conversations with people who believe in conspiracy theories.

Hold your tongue and show empathy

It’s important to remain respectful and polite, even if you're angry. Try to understand the worries and needs of the other person behind their way of thinking. Barriers, limitations and financial instability aren’t a standard part of everyday life. Sometimes, those experiencing stress react by being more susceptible to conspiracy theories.

Listen and show interest in understanding their point of view

If you enter the situation with the view of “I’m here to change your opinion because you're wrong”, you’ll most likely be met with a defensive and maybe even aggressive attitude. Draw attention to your genuine interest in learning more about their perspective instead of trying to convince them they're wrong from the outset. You could even try asking if the person is ready to talk. This will make them more open to listening to your points. Trust can work wonders.

Ask, don’t preach

Ask your counterpart questions to break down any initial reservations. You need to make the conspiracy theorist feel as though they are discovering the truth about their theory. This technique is referred to as the Socratic method. It has the power to put people in a position where they can recognize errors and consistent inconsistencies in their arguments.

The results of my qualitative research have been underpinned by a range of research papers and books I read on the subject. These include: Amadeu Antonio Stiftung. No world order; R. Imhoff & P. Lamberty Bioweapon or a Hoax? The Link Between Distinct Conspiracy Beliefs About the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Outbreak and Pandemic Behavior; Fake Facts by K. Nocun & P. Lamberty and Nonviolent Communication by M. Rosenberg.

When addressing such a controversial topic, things can quickly become emotional and tense. If this happens, we have a tendency to forget what is going well, and what isn’t. In real life, interactions often happen unexpectedly, without any time to prepare.

That's why I wanted to create an interactive and entertaining tool to practice these peaceful communication techniques in a safe space. Finding out what makes you more persuasive and trying out the various methods in advance can help you have more constructive conversations with people who believe in conspiracy theories.

I created a prototype featuring seven scenarios based on my research findings. The player selects an answer that they would give in a certain situation. This determines how the story plays out. After each situation, the player is informed how their counterpart feels about their response, how it may impact the rest of the discussion and tips on how to act in the best manner.

In the process of creating the game, I contacted the author of one of the research papers, Prof. Dr. Roland Imhoff. He was kind enough to help me with certain contextual aspects of the game. In this way, he provided me with helpful information on specific situations. His input once against emphasized that there isn’t always a right or wrong answer. For example, in one of the situations in the game the player needs to decide whether to comment on a social media post published by a family member online, or to discuss it with the person face to face. His feedback on this situation: “This point broaches on the controversial topic of descriptive social norms. If your goal is to convince (not to argue) the family member privately, this may lead to fewer counter reactions. It gives the person the opportunity to maintain this stance in public without criticism. At the same time, it may also convey to others that it's normal to simply ignore the safety precautions with regard to COVID-19 and nobody will object.

This raises the question as to whether saving a family member from conspiracy theories is truly the only goal in mind (and you don’t necessarily care about the others who are encouraged to ignore the safety precautions due to the post)”.

I’m currently in the midst of a crowdfunding campaign on Startnext to raise the funds required to launch the game. We've already started to develop the product and hope to receive enough funds by the end of November. To date, we’ve received a certain amount of public recognition thanks to our story being published in various magazines and newspapers.


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