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.

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Comments on “We Ran Our Online Election Disinformation Simulation Game And There's Plenty To Be Worried About”

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22 Comments
Koby (profile) says:

Political Consultants

With the huge amount of money in politics, I’m sure that the major political parties conduct such wargame exercises behind the scenes. This might have been a fun event, but other people out there are getting paid to do this kind of work. Potential money making opportunity lost, perhaps, but at least you didn’t have to sell your soul and become a political consultant to get a glimpse of what it was like.

Anonymous Coward says:

disinformation and misinformation is likely to show up in the next few months

Dis/misinformation have always been present in politics but for the last 3.5 years both have skyrocketed to unprecedented levels. It’s gotten so bad we can’t trust anything we see or hear in the media. Sources of probably-trustable information are few and far between, further amplifying the effects of dis/misinformation. And the vast majority of people are happy to play along rather than think for themselves. It’s pretty much chaos from end to end and leaves everyone boned.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Lemme sanitize/fix this for you, so it will fit in with the approved narrative of this site. Can’t have someone drawing attention to the fact that the problem is systemic, and not partisan:

Dis/misinformation have always been present in [right wing] politics but for the last 3.5 years both have skyrocketed to unprecedented levels [from the right]. It’s gotten so bad we can’t trust anything we see or hear in the [Fox News] media. Sources of probably-trustable information are few and far between [from conservative media), further amplifying the effects of dis/misinformation. And the vast majority of [ignorant, nazi, scum, racist Red-state) people are happy to play along rather than think for themselves. It’s pretty much chaos from end to end [of the evil Republican conservatives] and leaves everyone [liberals, the last worthy people on earth] boned.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

RD says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Ha! That’s a good one. This gem is the best:

"The difference is that the audience and hyperpartisan commercial clickbait fabricators oriented toward the left form part of a single media ecosystem with center, center-left, and left-wing sites that are committed to journalistic truth-seeking norms"

Truth? From lefist liberal media? I want some of what they are smoking. BOTH sides lie, and lie regularly, for their interests. Period. End of. This isn’t even in dispute, its a bare fact. It is provable on a daily basis with ample empirical evidence when they are caught out and especially when they have to retract or just straight-up delete the lies and try to cover it up (the internet never forgets).

Both sides. The liberal media just lies and "narrative shapes" more, and more subtly, like when they leave out key info or conflate one thing with another then use that as "proof." Another great method they use is to accuse someone of something, then use the accusation that has now made the rounds and re-term it as "involvement." When you know what to look for, you will see it everywhere, the misleading and intentional shaping of the "reporting."

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2

BOTH sides lie, and lie regularly, for their interests.

The key difference between left-wing media and right-wing media is simple, though: Whereas lies from the left drift to the center of the center/left-wing media ecosystem, get debunked (far more often than they don’t), and die a quick death then and there as the debunking ripples back to the left, lies from the right don’t face a similar “protective” structure in the right-wing media ecosystem. And if you could prove the right-wing media ecosystem doesn’t work that way, you would’ve done so already. But given how Fox News, Breitbart, and other right-wing media outlets have treated Donald Trump’s myriad lies as damn-near Biblical gospel, I don’t think you can do that.

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Anonymous Coward says:

"the pandemic hit the US pretty hard"

There’s that disinformation you’re talking about.

What’s amusing about your cohort, you love to use per capita numbers when you whine about blm, but refuse to use per capita number when it comes to police shootings of unarmed people.

The same applies with COVID0-19 84… per capita numbers don’t show a US that was hit "pretty hard."

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ECA (profile) says:

WE can find conspiracy in everything, with alittle imagination..

How about the idea of..
Insted of a GOOD warning about the Pandemic and how to Protect ourselves..
We are closed up in homes(easier to spread, if 1 gets sick) Then Every channel is broadcasting CRAP.
How easy it that? not very hard.

Using your head for something then a pillow crusher, isnt HARD.,
Its looking for the logic in the situation. Why and how, are big questions you Must ask. Its like tariff’s..WHO PAYS?? THE CONSUMER. no one else, as its to Force prices UP, and make it Equal to USA prices for Cheaper goods. But who gets the Money from it, is the big question.

Try this one. With an Economic Bust of the Century, WHO is making money? All of the larger corps. With the Personnel Cut backs, they didnt need to pay Extra wages, with the Cut to Taxes, and then proving LOSS because of the pandemic, there WONT be any taxes this year.
So whats happening NEXT year?? Who is paying for what??

virusdetected (profile) says:

If Esther says "..,the chaos hackers were almost redundant in the ugly world that the two warring parties…", I’m with her. She’s easily the smartest person I ever met. What I would add, from my own experience, is that "chaos kills," and that’s the real issue. Chaos obscures everyone’s ability to perceive accurately, and the consequences can be catastrophic.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Lets see.. With only 2 sides, truth/lies..not fabrication or anything in the middle.
Politics Lies.
Corps lie.
Police Lie.
People lie.
Which cover allot in this country.
Part of the problem tends to be TRUTH can get you fired or in jail. When the simple thing about rules, and making the outcome severe.
If a person is doing Something with no interaction with another, WHO CARES, go smoke a joint. Facts Should not Harm a person of anyone. But we have laws and regs, that make it complicated to tell the truth. For any one to tell the truth.

The truth for cops is to make the Job simpler, and their responsibility, Simple.
For the corps, lets Clean up the IRS(really needs it) and just Charge the corps a fix % of sales.
Politics, Easy…If caught in a lie or taking money from ANYONE, except for your pay check.,..FIRED and maybe jail time and a Fine Equal to taking away all you took in. We do not demand respect from politicians.
People, is easy.. The individual rights concept, as long as you rnt pissing off someone near you…Who cares. Any group of consenting adults? Fine.

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