Trolls at Play: Teaching Propaganda, Media Manipulation, and Election Interference through Roleplay

By Ben Bamberger

On April 27th, Judith Pintar, Teaching Associate Professor and Acting BS/IS Program Director in the iSchool, gave an engaging talk entitled “Trolls at Play: Teaching Propaganda, Media Manipulation, and Election Interference through Roleplay.” The talk, organized by the European Union Center and co-sponsored by REEEC, took place on Zoom and was well attended with over 60 participants (a packed crowd, in the parlance of the pre-quarantine!). In her presentation, Dr. Pintar described her general approach to flexible learning and role-play pedagogies before discussing how these approaches played out in her Spring 2020 course, “Seminar in Global Informatics: Narrative AI, Media Manipulation & Election Interference” (INFO/EURO 490).

For Pintar an ongoing pedagogical challenge, one that is likely familiar to many instructors, is the problem of getting undergraduate students to read course materials deeply and critically. When teaching courses on Eastern Europe, Pintar observed a troubling trend that resulted from this failure. Many of her heritage students came into the course with stereotypes about other nationalities and left with those same stereotypes intact. The non-heritage students meanwhile may have started with fewer stereotypes, but by the end of the course, they left with a well-developed set of stereotypes about the many nationalities of eastern Europe. To solve this problem, Pintar created playing cards with test questions through a simple game involving dice and fake money while further incorporating role-playing activities – for example, students would a write a white paper as a particular character or historical subject. As Pintar noted, this is not dissimilar from “Reacting to the Past” courses in the History Department, and encourages students to trouble some of their assumptions about regions, countries, or peoples. The result was extraordinarily successful – the playing cards allowed students to engage with new information and the role-playing helped students expand their understanding of this key world region. As a pedagogical approach, she convincingly argued that having fun and learning were not just compatible, but mutually reinforcing.

Pintar applied many of these techniques to her Spring 2020 Seminar on Global Informatics, which utilized a playful approach to teaching propaganda and media persuasion. As Pintar described, a key goal of the course was to encourage students to “be evil and become experts in disinformation.” To do this, the class created an entirely fake, new world made up of five countries with separate industries and resources (Romalea, Corico, Dodo, Valens, and Unia). “Planet Learth,” as this new world was called, functioned through action cards that detailed events that would affect each country. Byspring break, students had created a map of Planet Learth and began to fill in the key details about their individual countries. The first assignment was to create a public service announcement for their country and a meme cleverly disparaging their country from the viewpoint of an enemy nation.

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Pintar was well on her way to a successful, hands on role-playing experience that had students not only thinking more deeply about disinformation, but actively creating it in an entirely fictional world. And then, the University was forced to move all instruction online due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The move to remote instruction created several difficulties for a hands-on role-playing course, but Pintar was able to recreate the map of Planet Learth using online resources and then continue the game by uploading that map to Adobe Photoshop and using the layers feature to mark different stages of game play. Additionally, Pintar created a social media site so students could produce original content and spread disinformation about their respective countries, and students were assigned new and specific roles to help manage the move to online game play. The game continued, slightly changed but uninterrupted.

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The ultimate conclusion – after a full slate of elections, coups, and war – was the stunning gameplay of one citizen of Valens, Pruella Falconsflight (a pseudonym for one of the students).* Pruella cleverly made a backroom deal with the Orphan General (Pintar) and the World Banker to purchase additional weapons for her own personal use, and then utilized these resources to betray her own compatriots at the last moment. But as Pintar pointed out, in the end it was not clear which country actually won the game. Unia ended the game with the most money while Corico was occupied by Romalea. But Corico’s brave defense of Valens made it appear quite heroic. Had the game gone on longer, these results would have simply created more opportunities for disinformation and manipulation.

The point of all of this, however, was not just to have fun. As Pintar argued, the course gave students a new literacy around the language of rhetorical manipulation, and a new sensitivity for how widespread manipulative advertising and public relations work is in our own world. Becoming experts in disinformation on Planet Learth allowed students to see how such techniques were practiced in real time. The one downside to this “role-playing light” approach, as Pintar calls it, is the fact that it is labor intensive and requires a lot of engagement with students. It therefore is not ideal for larger classes, or ones taught on short notice without ample time for preparation. But the rewards for utilizing playful pedagogies when possible are obvious, as Pintar’s engaging talk clearly illustrated.

*(REEEC has it on good authority that Pruella Falconsflight is in fact a REEEC MA student. Our personal congratulations to Pruella for their impressive gameplay and conspiratorial machinations!).

 

Ben Bamberger is an Outreach and Programming Assistant at REEEC. He completed a PhD in the History Department at the University of Illinois in 2019, focusing on the history of Georgian mountaineering during the Soviet period.

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