Mis- and Disinformation Playing “Fight for the Net”

How and why is misinformation spread? The card game “Fight for the Net” explains the mechanisms in a playful way.
How and why is misinformation spread? The card game “Fight for the Net” explains the mechanisms in a playful way. | Photo (detail): Patrick Daxenbichler; © picture alliance / Zoonar

The “Fight for the Net” card game exposes the methods and motives of the actors behind misinformation. Creators Elena Falomo and Matthias C. Kettemann talk about the game’s backstory, aims, and mechanics.

Your upcoming card game, “Fight for the Net”, will encourage players to look behind the scenes at issues such as misinformation, hoaxes, online-fraud, and conspiracy theories. How did the idea for the game come about?

Elena Falomo: The idea for the game was planted during a project that matched scientists with creative minds, “Online Correspondences on the EU’s Digital Futures”, organized by the Polis180 think tank and supported by the Goethe Institute’s Generation A = Algorithm and the German Federal Foreign Office. For a week, we engaged in a dialogue on topics such as misinformation, disinformation, hoaxes, and online fraud. Matthias and I were both very interested in making these topics more accessible and engaging the public in a conversation about the methods and motives of those who spread things like misinformation. At first, the “Fight for the Net” cards were just a way to summarize the conversation. Later, we decided to turn them into a fully fledged game to encourage reflection on what public and private actors can do to preserve democratic rights in an online environment.

So “Fight for the Net” is the result of gamifying Matthias’ research and Elena’s creative talent? That sounds very interesting. Can you tell us a little bit about how the two of you work together?

Elena Falomo: I mostly think about various game mechanics and characters’ roles. Then we come together and brainstorm how to translate academic research into the game’s structure, and how it can be designed to be valuable and actionable for the public and serve as a resource beyond the game as well.

Matthias Kettemann: That is why we call Elena the design researcher and me the research designer. We found that it is important to show how you can transfer important insights through gamification. Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, has a card game with hacker groups and cybercriminals, so we thought why not raise awareness of disinformation the same way. Just like online driving games have been shown to decrease reaction times, why not let people experiment with the actors spreading disinformation in a safe environment? This awareness is important because the spreaders of bad information constitute a danger to our individual rights and the free information space.

The game is scheduled to be released this spring and you are already beta testing. Can you talk a little bit more about the game mechanics?

Elena Falomo: One important element of game design is policy cards that reflect real-world laws and policies that have been put into place to preserve freedom of speech and democratic discourse online. In the game, players with bad intentions can exploit those policies to their own advantage. Just like in the real world, policies with good intentions can be exploited. Like Europe’s data protection law, the GDPR, which is meant to protect everyone’s data and privacy, but is now being used by the rich and powerful to rewrite online traces of their past.

What would you like to achieve with “Fight the Net”? Does the game offer options for a “better internet”?

Elena Falomo: The game is meant to spark a conversation on the present and encourage immediate action. It aims to help people understand the different strategies and actions of those who spread misinformation and disinformation, commit online fraud, and so on – and show them counterstrategies and ways to react.
Cards from the “Fight for the Net” card game: the “Lying President”, the “Digital Criminal” and the “Capitalist Data Hoarder”. Cards from the “Fight for the Net” card game: the “Lying President”, the “Digital Criminal” and the “Capitalist Data Hoarder”. | Photo: © Elena Falomo In the game, some of the actors who spread misinformation are personified, such as the “lying president”, who warps reality with fake news to further his own political goals, or as an “online Karen”, whose digital weapon is the share button. One obvious approach to limit disinformation is censorship, which clashes with the idea and ideal of a free internet. What is your take on this? Should the internet be governed by stricter rules, or should users find better ways to protect themselves?

Matthias Kettemann: We have to distinguish between the activities of states and private actors. Private actors cannot censor anyone - only the state can engage in censorship. Platforms such as Facebook have developed and implemented their own rules, their normative orders, and are enforcing them using algorithmic tools and human moderation. We are seeing the emergence of privatized communication spaces that have long been optimized to keep people online longer. Disinformation is often really interesting; it keeps users online. Companies are only now being incentivized by states to fight disinformation more strongly, but need to make sure they do not delete too much as they do. States, however, have very limited legal options for fighting disinformation – which is good, because freedom of expression is such an essential right.

Elena Falomo: Censorship is not the answer. All the issues stem from the fact that we see the web as an essential and necessary tool for human communication, but the underlying infrastructure is privatized and thus generally opaque. Policies that grant more transparency and the protection of individual and community rights are essential, but we also need to invest in digital education for the public and make sure that these topics and tools are accessible to citizens so as to ensure their participation in redesigning the immediate future of this infrastructure.

German comedian Jan Böhmermann recently suggested nationalizing Facebook. What do you think of this idea?

Matthias Kettemann: I do not think nationalizing companies would foster innovation. Instead, we should engage in a discussion on who sets the rules for online communication and who exercises power in online communication spheres. How are democratic processes safeguarded today? Who is allowed to determine what we can say online? With the game we try to show that there are so many different actors involved and so many different interests at stake that it is important to complexify the whole debate. It is good that states have now woken up a bit to the need to protect their citizens’ rights vis-à-vis private companies and other internet users. We cannot let Facebook and other platforms monopolize the rules for democratic discourse. And we cannot let rogue actors use tech to harm society. We have to ensure that online spaces remain as free and open as possible. So, instead of talking about nationalizing platforms, we should look to creating non-commercialized spaces where we can form and express our opinions online – a global, communicative commons for a better democracy.

Elena Falomo: We should also talk about consensus and its speed. The democratic process works by building consensus and this process has its own pace. If we look at the digital realm and the work of platform creators, they want everything to be accelerated. “Move fast and break things” is their motto, which does not fit well with community-centered and public processes. What if we were to redesign digital platforms to be a little slower? What would happen if they allowed some more time for reflection and rationality? What if digital interfaces were not optimized to play with our emotionality and polarized views? The ways information around Covid-19 was spread revealed many advantages, but also a lot of flaws in the design of these interfaces, so before talking about nationalization we also need to talk about designing with intention.

“EU Digital Futures”

In order to promote an exchange across borders and disciplines, the “Generation A = Algorithm” project of the Goethe-Institut, together with the grassroots think tank Polis180 and with the support of the German Federal Foreign Office, organized a five-week digital dialogue on European digital policy under the motto “EU Digital Futures” in May and June 2021. Five tandems, each with a representative from the fields of data science and art, devoted themselves to a weekly changing focus topic in a free format. The idea for “Fight for the Net” arose in one of the working groups.