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Pagella Politica

CHAPTER 7

Messaging Apps

«Artificial intelligence offers many opportunities for fact-checkers, but it also demands a lot of time and resources to keep the systems constantly updated»

Silvia Cavasola, Project Manager at Pagella Politica (Italy)

Chatbot and instant messaging services are emerging as promising tools for organizations across all kinds of industries. Thanks to their popularity and the high rates of adoption among the general public, they offer interesting features focused on engagement and can help to build a closer relationship with users.

Over the last couple of years fact-checkers have started experimenting with chatbots and messaging apps to communicate with their audience and share content in innovative ways. Let’s see which are the most popular platforms across the IFCN community, and how fact-checkers are taking advantage of them.

According to our analysis, the most common instant messaging platforms used by fact-checkers internationally are WhatsApp and Telegram.

WhatsApp

More and more fact-checkers are now on WhatsApp

The platform, currently owned by Facebook, is used by more than 2 billion people globally.

When it comes to fact-checking, it is increasingly employed as a tool that allows users to engage directly with an outlet and report questionable information or potential false news, such as phony voice messages or viral videos and pictures that circulate online (Video 1).

Video 1. Facta’s video to promote WhatsApp

The chatbot is technically managed through the WhatsApp API service, and it consists of an automated chat which can respond to users in real time and store their verification requests in a database.

WhatsApp-based chatbots are currently offered by many fact-checking projects: among others Facta (Italy), BOOM (India), FullFact (United Kingdom), and Ghana Fact (Ghana). In May 2020, the IFCN also activated a special WhatsApp chatbot based on a database of more than 4,000 hoaxes related to the new coronavirus pandemic.

A full list of fact-checkers reachable through WhatsApp is available here. Some outlets are also using WhatsApp to offer slightly different services: PesaCheck (Video 2), a Kenyan fact-checking project part of the IFCN, employs the chatbot feature to send out weekly newsletters to subscribed users, directly through individual chats. Similarly, Colombiacheck (Colombia) activated a WhatsApp group whose members receive daily updates about the outlet’s new contents.

Video 2. Pesacheck FB post to promote the newsletter on WhatsApp

Telegram

A good alternative

Previously known as an uncensored platform for questionable activities and conspiratorial content, Telegram is now becoming a particularly popular messaging platform among fact-checkers.

From this perspective, the most interesting feature allows outlets to create “channels” where they regularly post updates and new analyses, in order to quickly redirect the audience to their websites or other social media profiles (Figure 1). Interested users can subscribe to the channels, follow their activities, and click on the links to immediately access the full content offering.

Figure 1. FB post by Maldita.es about the Telegram channel

Maldita‘s (Spain) Telegram channel “Maldito Bulo”, for instance, has almost 18,5k subscribers, while Factcheck.kz (Kazakhstan) counts about 9k*. Maldita has also activated a “Bulobot” service on Telegram: a chatbot, similar to the one offered by WhatsApp, through which users can report dubious information, videos, photos, or audio messages to get them verified.

*[as of April, 2021]

CASE STUDY

Vera, a chatbot for engagement

An interesting example of a chatbot specifically built and designed to serve fact-checking purposes is Vera (Figure 2) a “conversational digital assistant” developed by the Italian fact-checking projects Pagella Politica and Facta in partnership with the Milan-based San Raffaele hospital and research center. 

Figure 2. Vera, the “conversational digital assistant” – Click to enlarge

Officially launched in September 2020, Vera is accessible through an interactive landing page which allows users to choose between two options: verify hoaxes and information about Covid-19, or ask specific questions related to the ongoing pandemic (Figure 3). The assistant will then search its internal database of fact-checking articles and present the findings that best fit the questions.

Silvia Cavasola, project manager at Pagella Politica, guided us through the development phases of the chatbot and its results in terms of engagement. «The idea for Vera came to us in March 2020, when Italy was forced into its first national lockdown», she explained. The project won the Coronavirus Fact-checking Grant organized by the IFCN and Facebook, whose goal was to finance innovative initiatives that could quickly spread verified content about the Covid-19 pandemic and help to stop the growing infodemic.  

«We immediately thought that a conversational assistant would allow us to take advantage of artificial intelligence in order to share the articles we publish on Facta and Pagella Politica with a larger audience», said Cavasola. «Vera’s goal is straightforward: we want to provide answers to the questions and doubts users might have during an incredibly sensitive moment, which unfortunately is acting as a breeding ground for disinformation».

Figure 3. Conversation with Vera – Click to enlarge

Vera targets two categories of users. First of all, it is devised for people with low levels of media literacy who don’t feel comfortable using technology: «Simulating a conversation with a human makes it easier to access verified information about the pandemic», said Cavasola. On the other hand, the chatbot can also act as an alternative to traditional websites for those who want to consume quality content.

Pagella Politica and Facta promoted the project through their social media profiles and used important events related to the pandemic – such as the beginning of the vaccination campaign – to increase the visibility of the project.

According to Cavasola, as of April 2021 Vera had more than 40k interactions. «Working on Vera was extremely useful. We learned that the world of artificial intelligence offers many opportunities for fact-checkers, but it also demands a lot of time and resources to keep the systems constantly updated», she said. «I would certainly recommend investing in this field, even though a lot of work needs to be done before it can perform as efficiently as other widespread formats».

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