We Ran Our Online Election Disinformation Simulation Game And There's Plenty To Be Worried About
from the people-are-sneaky dept
If you are interested in having us run Threatcast 2020, or commission some other “serious” games, for your organization or as a group event, please contact us..
Back at the end of January, you may recall that we wrote about Threatcast 2020, an in-person election disinformation brainstorming simulation that we had created last year — created in partnership between our think tank organization, the Copia Institute, and Randy Lubin of Leveraged Play. The game was developed as an in person brainstorming exercise to look at various strategies that might be used to engage in (and counter) disinformation and misinformation strategies around the 2020 election. We had hoped to run the event throughout this year.
Of course, soon after we announced it, the pandemic hit the US pretty hard, and the idea of running in-person events disappeared. The game had a variety of specific elements to it, and replacing it via Zoom just wouldn’t be the same. After it became clear that the pandemic situation would almost certainly rule out all in-person events this year, we set to making an online version of the game, which we completed a few weeks back. We’ve now run the event a few times, some for private groups, and one “showcase” event we put on just last week. The event itself was run under Chatham House rules, so we will not identify who attended or what individuals said, but I can talk a bit about what happened at the event. And, just for clarification, we had a wide range of participants — from companies, non-profits, foundations, academia, and government.
One participant who did agree to be named was famed investor Esther Dyson, who told me of the event that “It was fun and funny, but it had enough truth in it to be an amazing and eye-opening experience. This kind of simulation is exactly the preparation people need for the real world, whatever world they operate in.” She also noted her key takeaway from the event: “The most compelling message is that the chaos hackers were almost redundant in the ugly world that the two warring parties – or four warring factions – were creating for themselves and all around them. Our wish, in playing as the chaos team, was for a contested election, not a specific winner. And a final key message: it will be important to see who can bring us together – especially AFTER the election.”
The game itself involves players working in teams as various political factions — representing a broad coalition of political operatives (not as specific candidates or campaigns) — and responding to certain situational prompts (and actions by other teams) as they navigate from now through the election (and beyond). Not all of the factions are interested in supporting a happy democratic election. In the event we ran last week, there were four rounds covering the run-up to the election and the immediate aftermath of the election.
The players brought a vast array of manipulation and deception to the campaigns and created an atmosphere of paranoia, anger, and confusion. Over the course of the election, the center-right republicans turned their focus to down-ballot races, enabling the GOP to keep the Senate and retake the House of Representatives even as the Democrats won the presidency. However, Trump refused to concede defeat and the game ended with a standoff at the White House. I should note that while there is, within the game, some election modeling to see how well these strategies impact the actual election, the game is not designed to simulate (and certainly not to predict) the outcome of the election, but rather to simulate what kinds of disinformation we’ll see (across the board). Along those lines, I’ll note that the results of this simulation turned out quite different than the other Threatcast’s we have run.
Of particular interest in last week’s simulation: the amount of chaos. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that nothing seems off the table, and no idea is too crazy. That played out within our game as well (though, at least one of our judges noted that even some of the more “extreme” ideas presented were ones that were already playing out in real life). Another element that played out, as Esther Dyson noted above, was just how much chaos there is overall — such that some of the players (who were in the role of chaos agents, trying to create more chaos) found that the other factions were more or less doing their job for them, making it easier to just amplify the crazy concepts others were coming up with. Again, that feels somewhat true to life.
I was at least somewhat surprised at the role that TikTok played in the various campaigns. Nearly all of the factions at one point or another came up with a TikTok strategy — perhaps foreshadowing where the technological battleground will be this year. Not surprisingly, much of the strategy of those supporting the Democrats in the election focused on first influencing what few swing voters remain, and then pivoted heavily towards getting out the vote and increasing voter participation. On the Republican side, there was a split as noted above. More traditional Republicans mostly ignored the Presidential campaign and focused on down ballot races concerning Congress, while the Trump campaign focused heavily on spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt about… well… everything.
Running Threatcast has been quite eye-opening in highlighting the many different ways in which disinformation and misinformation is likely to show up in the next few months. If you’re interested in having us run Threatcast 2020 for your organization or group (it’s way, way, way better than a Zoom happy hour), please contact us.