In the age of deepfakes, fake news, and general jackassery on social media, it’s important that people, especially young people, learn to develop a keen eye for disinformation in all its forms.
A good way to do that is to make a game out of it, so that players can experience disinformation work from the troll’s perspective. That’s Troll Factory, a trolling simulation game created by a team from Yle News Lab at the Finnish broadcasting company Yle.
In the game, you use tools like botnets and internet memes to spread fear, bias, and suspicion. For a full week, you choose your content, select a target audience, and decide how to reach them. Day by day, you move through new tactics to get ever larger numbers of people to see and interact with your propaganda—all of which is taken from real social media posts. Your goal is to accumulate as many shares and new followers as you can. Your “boss” urges you on at every step and gives you new tricks to try.
The developers believe that if social media users can see inside the world of a troll—to actually become one in a game simulation—they might be much more savvy information consumers and even work to confront and dispel disinformation.
After playing the game awhile, you get the sense that the troll’s world is a foreign and dark place.
“Just beneath the surface of our everyday social media experience lurks another kind of reality, with its own methods and tools,” says Jarno Koponen, Yle New Lab’s head of AI and personalization, who leads the team that developed the app. “In Troll Factory, we show different methods used in information operations: fake news, conspiracy theories, malicious internet-memes, targeted advertising/messaging, and automated bots.” He spoke to me via Twitter DM from Helsinki.
The first thing you see in Troll Factory is a message from your “boss” telling you to go out and spread disinformation on a given subject. The boss identifies you as Employee #2053, which immediately made me feel like part of a troll farm similar to the Russian Internet Research Agency that interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and helped elect Donald Trump.
But Koponen says Troll Factory wasn’t based on any particular organization, and he said that was intentional. “This is part of the game experience as well,” he tells me. “In a way, you don’t know as a user who you’re working for, or for what end. You need to figure it out yourself.”
Troll Factory is a fairly simplistic representation of organized trolling. It doesn’t get too far into the data science of carefully segmenting audiences and crafting digital content based on their demographics, biases, or political activity. But allowing the user to effectively sit in the chair of one of these disinformation workers, and work with actual messaging and content sampled from social networks, hits home for some players. It’s not a lesson on how to troll, but an introduction to the worldview of a troll and a primer on how to resist their influence as digital consumers.
As one player wrote on Twitter: “I found it extremely challenging emotionally but it drives the message home: the more controversy, the more followers.”
You can try out the game here.