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The Imposters Among Us

Erick Anthony Dagohoy on Flickr

There is an impostor among us. In the new online multiplayer game Among Us teams of astronauts, called Crewmates, are tasked with unmasking a lethal impostor aboard their spaceship. The way that game works is that the impostor looks and acts very much like the other Crewmates and can be difficult to ferret out. However, to evade detection the impostor has to be discreet about how they take out each of their fellow players one-by-one.

Among Us is at heart a cooperative game. Players communicate through a chat window, and any Crewmate can call an emergency meeting at any point. If the players know the signs of an impostor, they can usually triangulate which of their fellow players is the bad actor. However, players new to the game might find that identifying an accomplished impostor can be a difficult task.

My 8th grade students are currently smitten with this game, and I can see why. Similar to the age-old Mafia or Werewolf party games, it is fun to role-play as the impostor as well as hunt one down. When one of my 8th grade sections pleaded with me to create a lesson based on Among Us, I was initially a bit stumped. I realized they just wanted an excuse to play the game in school, but didn’t have a solid lesson in mind. Then it occurred to me that the impostor in Among Us is an apt analogy for something rather important: the current state of internet disinformation.

Before the internet transitioned from a place for academics, hobbyists, and computer scientists to an open digital town square, valid information on the internet was easier to spot and identify. Large government-funded science organizations like NASA and the NSF had a large presence on the burgeoning platform. Newspapers and magazines that had been in print for decades openly and frequently posted content that had been researched and fact-checked.

The landscape now is quite different. Today the multitude of information sources and social media posts makes verifying the quality of information quite difficult for a trained adult, let alone for a teenager. Being more impressionable, teenagers accept the veracity of online data more easily and practice less skepticism online.

The analogy I use with my students is that it is like identifying junk food in the supermarket. Because corporations hide unhealthy ingredients in the small print and make bold health claims on the packaging in large print, making smart choices in the supermarket is hard for young people to do. Having the guidance of an adult helps, but online many teenagers are left to fend for themselves in an overwhelming marketplace of political ideas, claims, and propaganda.

So like Among Us, the goal when online is to identify those around us that are participating in good faith and the impostors who seek to propagate misleading information. After playing Among Us, I introduced the concept of Astroturfing to my students. Astroturfing is when an organization uses social media bots or intermediaries to push an agenda while also hiding the true source of the campaign. Since we have just had an election, the students had many examples of getting bombarded with information from dubious sources. One student admitted that she felt overwhelmed by social media and had no idea where to even begin.

One organization that is helping to watchdog the impostors is the Project on Computational Propaganda at the Oxford Internet Institute. Since 2012, they have investigated how bots, algorithms, and automation have influenced political discourse online. They have five criteria for identifying “Junk News”: Professionalism, Style, Credibility, Bias, and Counterfeit. Any news source that meets even three of the criteria should be treated much like junk food at the supermarket – good at promoting short-term feelings but lacking in any meaningful nutrition.

It is a natural process for teenagers to develop an identity and try to make sense of their world. In an era where social media has as many “influencers” as it does credible sources, it is extremely important for young people to have a strong set of critical thinking skills to find the impostors. I encouraged my students to use the Junk News criteria and to continue to communicate with each other about the claims they read about on the internet. Just as in the game, students are stronger together than they are isolated. When it comes to information in the 21st century, we (or I should say most of us) are all in this together.

Learn More

Among Us


Among Us on Steam


How to play Among Us


Potential Imposter websites


Imposter Websites are among us


How to spot online imposters


What is astroturfing


What is astroturfing in politics?


Oxford Computational Propaganda Project


Misinformation and the Corona Virus


Spotting Fake News


Identifying fake news