By Patricia Watts
Of all the tools and techniques available to counter the effects of foreign disinformation and propaganda, a well-engineered video game may be among the most effective.
In early November, the U.S. Global Engagement Center (GEC), in collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security, released Harmony Square. This online game takes players through the steps of developing a disinformation campaign to sow division and disrupt the peace of a fictitious town square. Based on “inoculation theory,” the game purposely engages players in the use of disinformation techniques with the goal of building mental defenses against those same techniques when they are eventually encountered on the internet. Harmony Square taps into the massive pool of 2.5 billion gamers worldwide.
The counter-disinformation community was quick to support the game. Cambridge University researchers independently assessed it in the Harvard Misinformation Review, explaining that players become “more confident in their ability to spot such [disinformation] content” and that they are “less likely to report sharing it with others in their network.”
Since the Cambridge University review, Harmony Square has been covered in more than 100 news articles globally. In a month, about 41,000 people played the game, and as of publication the number has risen to 60,000. The first version is available in English and translations to multiple languages are under consideration.
Harmony Square is just one of the many specialized counter-disinformation tools being reviewed, tested, and implemented by the GEC,—which leads and coordinates efforts of the federal government to expose and counter foreign propaganda and disinformation. The Center runs a biweekly Tech Demo Series, overseas Tech Challenges, and a technology Testbed that enable the U.S. government and foreign partners to experiment with emerging technologies, with the goal of implementing these technologies at scale. These programs form a “virtuous cycle” that the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence recently recommended to the U.S. Congress as a model for broader government adoption.
Patricia Watts is the director of the Global Engagement Center’s Technology Engagement Team.