WATERLOO — It was in late March that Ridhi Patel first became alarmed about misinformation around COVID-19. The third-year pre-med student had just returned to her hometown of Niagara Falls after her term at the University of Waterloo was abruptly cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Family and friends debated on the correct percentage of alcohol in hand sanitizer and whether or not to wear masks. On the internet, she scrolled past conspiracy theories and misinformation. With her background in science, she was particularly concerned at what was happening online.
“On social media, I was noticing a lot of people were very unsure everywhere,” she said.
An avid gamer, Patel decided that she would make a video game to dispel misinformation. She eventually launched Quarantrivia, a game that tests players on their COVID-19 knowledge. The player follows Dr. Pixel through three rounds of multiple choice-questions, which must be answered correctly to destroy COVID-19 and save the Pixel World.
The first release of the game focused on general knowledge about COVID-19, but Patel plans to update it regularly. She’s releasing another round of questions in the next two weeks, focusing on Phase III guidelines in Ontario. So far, over 400 players have engaged with Quarantrivia.
Building the game was a challenge. Although Patel is talented at graphics, her back-end coding skills were shakier. A collaborator had agreed to help, but ended up dropping out of the project. Patel rolled up her sleeves and finished the project herself.
“If it wasn’t such a time-sensitive project, I don’t think I would have got it done,” she said.
She didn’t work entirely alone, however. Patel wanted to make sure her information was thoroughly vetted, so she reached out to aquatic virologist Jozef Nissimov at the University of Waterloo. He jumped on the idea that an interactive game would be more engaging than a government website or article.
“I had my own kind of strong opinions and views on misinformation,” Nissimov said.
He worked with Patel to ensure the questions and answers were in line with local government, WHO, and CDC advice. He also directed Patel toward UW’s Faculty of Science, who provided funds to host Quarantrivia’s online domain.
As a scientist, Nissimov is concerned that some of the pseudo-scientific theories circulating online could have real-world effects.
“There’s no accountability, which is pretty dangerous,” he said. “People are getting false information about how wearing masks can reduce oxygen levels, which has been debunked.”
According to Shana MacDonald, a communications professor at the University of Waterloo, misinformation is a consequence of the way news consumption has moved online. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter reward content that maximizes users’ time spent on social media.
That means incentivizing anything that “seems very eye catching, appeals to our emotions, (or) makes us angry or afraid.” Clickbait engages users, explained MacDonald — and so do claims about COVID cures or government conspiracies. She predicts an uptick in anti-science rhetoric if a COVID-19 vaccine is released.
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MacDonald cautioned that responsibility lies not only on consumers to educate themselves through initiatives like Quarantrivia. In the past few months, Twitter and Facebook have taken down posts spreading misinformation about COVID-19. MacDonald believes that the pandemic has heightened the pressure on these platforms.
“We saw how rapidly people were taking this information and then applying it to their bodies,” she said. “Someone tweets about the benefits of bleach, and then people are drinking bleach and dying.”