August 21, 2018

Users came for the free stickers and stayed for the fake news.

That was the strategy of “Knowledge Treasury” (roughly translated), an account that distributes about four or five stories a day on Line, a messaging app headquartered in Japan. The channel grew to nearly 150,000 subscribers by offering all new followers free stickers, a popular way to communicate on the platform.

But Knowledge Treasury didn’t give away any stickers, and it isn’t the only one — entire networks of Line channels make the same empty promise in order to grow an audience and peddle misinformation.

“When (profiles) have enough followers, they change the name and profile picture to another channel and change to a health channel and start to send misinformation,” said Peerapon Anutarasoat, a fact-checker and team lead for the Thai News Agency’s Sure and Share Center, a fact-checking project. “And people don’t care about it because people want a free sticker; they didn’t lose any money to do that.”

Among the types of stories that Knowledge Treasury publishes each day include claims that kale juice can alleviate bone pain and honey can cure diseases. Poynter reached out to the channel on Line but had not heard back as of publication.

Sticker accounts
This channel started out promising free stickers to all new followers, only to change its profile and start peddling health misinformation. (Courtesy Peerapon Anutarasoat) 

Line has about 170 million monthly active users in its four main markets and is among the most popular messaging apps in countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Taiwan. While it’s similar to other messaging platforms, Line has a more exhaustive array of features, such as separate sections for news, ordering taxis, mobile payments and music streaming. The app makes money by selling stickers and advertising.

And, like both WhatsApp and WeChat, the peer-to-peer messaging environment can be taken advantage of by fake news writers, hoaxers and scammers.

“It's a kind of complex thing as a mixture of misinformation, phishing, scamming, bad advertising and monetization,” Anutarasoat said of accounts that dabble in misinformation. “What people are sharing the most is about health.”

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Those types of stories directly target an older demographic that might be less likely to discern between credible and bunk health information on Line, Anutarasoat said.

“Old people are solely on Line because they do not use Facebook much,” he said. “And those people, they are in the stage where their friends are deceased (and they’re) facing health problems, so I think it also drives the content network to target them and sell something like health products.”

Accounts similar to Knowledge Treasury, such as “GINZEN take care of health” and “GINZEN omni-knowledge about health” (roughly translated), get so big that they advertise bogus health brands. Both have more than 850,000 subscribers and “Ginzen” — an herbal supplement that promises to solve “chi and yin deficiency” — in their account names. Poynter reached out to both on Line but had not heard back as of publication.

Anutarasoat said he’s not sure whether those two channels are run by the company itself or simply paid to advertise their products. Regardless, it’s indicative of how health misinformation is monetized on Line. Many of the top misinforming accounts on the app publish accurate tips about things like lowering blood pressure alongside spammy ads for things like detoxifying foot pads — and Anutarasoat said channels regularly profit from it.

Knowledge Treasury
(From left) An advertisement for detoxifying foot pads and some information about what constitutes healthy adult blood pressure on the Knowledge Treasury channel. (Screenshots from Line)

“The products that some of these networks want to sell, (they’re) not harmful products, but not useful like they advertise — like a fake website that’s selling medicine that can reduce blood pressure, and they’re targeting it for older people who have high blood pressure problem,” he said. “They create a convincing website that has a picture of a doctor and a picture of a witness. In some websites, they actually fake that it is a website from public health ministries.”

Anutarasoat has debunked several of those sites, which sell bogus health products using a cash-on-delivery service that makes payments harder to track. One fake website misled people into believing they could have a parasite in their body if they’re tired or have a fever, then sold drugs that promised to get rid of them.

In Japan, while health misinformation is a big problem on news aggregation sites, Yoi Tateiwa told Poynter in an email that he hasn’t seen much of it migrate to Line specifically.

“Line has been becoming the major app for newsgathering especially for the younger generation,” said the vice president of FactCheck Initiative Japan. “(But) I have not heard any claim that systematic misinformation has been sent to Line.”

Line has a news section, but like WhatsApp, it’s an encrypted messaging app that’s not easily searchable like Twitter or Facebook. That, along with the fact that misinforming channels often have larger followings than fact-checkers (Sure and Share has more than 1 million followers on YouTube and 150,000 on Facebook, but only about 4,500 on Line), makes it hard for people like Anutarasoat to combat misinformation at scale.

So he’s taken an approach familiar to fact-checkers who debunk hoaxes on WhatsApp or WeChat: fielding messages from users who have questions about specific pieces of content, then sending back his fact checks.

“We can learn what they’re thinking about each topic,” Anutarasoat said. “I have asked people who ask us and I ask them back: ‘Why do you believe this? Why do you think this is true?’ People explain what’s convincing them, which part of the topic is convincing them, and we learn from that too.”

Line is taking smalls steps toward limiting the reach of misinformation. It lets users report spoof accounts, which people often do after they notice that a free sticker channel has changed its name. The company also works with the Thai Food and Drug Administration to identify and remove illegal content “in accordance with local laws and legislation,” Line told Poynter.

“Line is one of the major communication platforms in Thailand, where health misinformation does go viral across various communication platforms,” said Alexander Blackhall, a member of the company’s global communication team, in an email. “Line is aware of this issue and is consistently working with The Food and Drugs Association (FDA) to remove illegal content.”

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And now it’s thinking about partnering with fact-checkers to showcase their work more prominently in the app.

Anutarasoat said he has spoken with the company about adding a section to the Line Today news aggregator with fact checks from Sure and Share. The company did not respond to questions from Poynter about the potential partnership.

If Line goes through with the new feature, it’d be a good step toward letting people find verified information more easily, Anutarasoat said. But until the company makes some structural changes to the way its platform works, it’s unlikely that simply surfacing more fact checks will substantially limit the amount of misinformation that people are exposed to.

“To stop misinformation needs many kinds of actions. To provide contents is just a reactive way,” he said. “We need monitoring and more ways that provide more proactive … platform-level technology and innovation for helping both fact-checkers and people.”

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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