News and Views

UCC researcher awarded for conspiracy theory video game concept

14 Dec 2021
Ryan Meade, Government Affairs and Public Policy Manager, Google Ireland, Minister of State for Trade Promotion, Digital and Company Regulation, Robert Troy TD, UCC Researcher Cian O'Mahony, and Peter Brown, Director of the IRC.

A University College Cork (UCC) researcher’s efforts to tackle conspiracy theories via a video game has been rewarded with a new scholarship focussed on addressing problematic online behaviour.

Cian O’Mahony has today been announced as one of just two awardees of the inaugural Irish Research Council (IRC) and Google Ireland Scholarship under the IRC Enterprise Partnership Scheme.

A PhD student at UCC’s School of Applied Psychology, Mr O’Mahony states that providing conspiracy theorists with factual counterarguments has proven to be ineffective among a cohort who deny the truth as part of the very conspiracy in which they believe. 

“A more promising method then may be to equip individuals with the critical thinking skills necessary to evaluate a conspiracy theory so that, when presented with a conspiracy theory, they will ask themselves how feasible it is, and question the source and its motivation," Mr O'Mahony said.

“My research will explore a novel method of encouraging individuals to think critically about conspiracy theories; a video game. Games have been shown to be an efficient means of attitudinal change and combating misinformation for two reasons; games excel at immersing players in role-playing, allowing them to assess complex problems from alternative perspectives, and games can arguably describe complex processes in a way which is not possible through verbal or written means of communication,” Mr O’Mahony states. 

With the support of this scholarship, Mr O’Mahony’s project will:

  • Conduct a systematic review to examine why people believe in such conspiracy theories and understand what interventions may change their minds. 
  • Develop a psychological measure of the degree to which individuals critically evaluate conspiracy theories.
  • Evaluate several evidence-based interventions to encourage more critical appraisal of conspiracy theories
  • Build a game using our understanding of the mechanisms behind conspiracy ideation and assess whether this game can encourage more critical appraisal of conspiracy theories.

Mr O’Mahony added:

“The Google scholarship will give me unique access to the expertise and experience of a global technology company, empowering me with the practical knowledge and skills to develop my research project with the support of UCC. Google’s ongoing commitment to combatting the spread of misinformation and conspiracy ideation online is demonstrated through its development of special units such as Jigsaw, which explores threats to open societies and builds technology that inspires scalable solutions. I am looking forward to exploring the potential benefits that could arise from combining my project with the work of Jigsaw and other Google initiatives."

Mr O’Mahony is hosted and mentored by Dr Gillian Murphy and Dr. Conor Linehan at UCC's School of Applied Psychology.

Today's announcement was made by Minister of State for Trade Promotion, Digital and Company Regulation, Robert Troy, TD. 

Welcoming the awards Minister of State Robert Troy said:

“The way we live and work has changed. Over the past two years we have seen the shift to online accelerate almost overnight and with it a growing reliance on remote working and remote learning. While there are many benefits in this, there are risks and challenges. The spread of misinformation online has highlighted a greater need for more robust solutions to online content safety. The world is now online and information spreads faster than any other point in history. We must ensure that with such rapid growth, the internet remains a safe and reliable resource for all. I am delighted to announce the new partnership between the Irish Research Council and Google Ireland and look forward to following the progress of these cutting-edge research scholarships.”

Commenting on today’s announcement Ryan Meade, Government Affairs and Public Policy Manager, Google Ireland said: "We are very excited to see such strong research projects emerging from the first candidates to be awarded the Google Scholarship in Online Content Safety.

“Our partnership with the Irish Research Council builds on the opening of our first Google Safety Engineering Centre (GSEC) for Content Responsibility in Dublin earlier this year. Our European headquarters in Ireland is an important hub for the work we do to protect people from harmful content and make our products safer for everyone. We want to ensure we're playing a part in stimulating cutting-edge research on these topics."

Peter Brown, Director of the IRC, said: “The IRC’s partnership with Google Ireland offers a new opportunity to promote high quality postgraduate research in an area which is of great importance to everyone who uses the internet. Google Ireland are funding excellent PhD candidates to conduct doctoral research and develop expertise in this important topic. This is an exciting initiative which enables academic researchers to collaborate with the Google Safety Engineering Center (GSEC) Dublin on online content responsibility.”

The Google Ireland strand joins the IRC’s Enterprise Partnership Scheme (EPS) as it enters its seventeenth year. EPS provides postgraduate or postdoctoral candidates, hosted by a research performing institution, the opportunity to collaborate with an enterprise or employer on a research project of mutual interest.

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