With help from Facebook, these two projects are tackling fake news in Brazil

With concerns rising about misinformation plaguing this year’s election in Brazil, Facebook is throwing some money at the problem.

Today the technology company announced that it’s funding two news literacy projects aimed at preventing social media users from sharing fake news. The first is an online course developed by Brazilian researchers to help young people and educators avoid falling for hoaxes, while the second is a Messenger bot from fact-checking organization Aos Fatos that aims to provide users with tips and resources for debunking misinformation.

Aos Fatos director Tai Nalon told Poynter that the short-term goal of the bot — tentatively named “Fátima,” shorthand for “fact machine” — is to enable Facebook users to be their own fact-checkers.

“She’ll be like a user manual for how to translate the web,” said Nalon. “It will be some kind of teacher — a friend that can give you a thought about why you think (news) is true. Are the numbers right? Is the vocabulary or the language they’re using aggressive? Can you find this information in other news outlets?”

Aos Fatos is receiving R$150,000 (more than $45,000) to build out the chatbot for an expected June launch, Nalon said. The money comes at an opportune time for the fact-checking outfit; in December, it hired five new staffers, including a developer and computer scientist.

Fátima will use natural language processing to take user inquiries about viral news stories and match them with official sources and tips for spotting fake news. In that way, the project takes a page from similar chatbots developed by outlets like The New York Times, which used Messenger to answer common questions about the U.S. election in 2016. In the past, fact-checkers like Univision's Detector de Mentiras have also tried using chatbots, and there’s a growing movement toward automating at least some of the fact-checking process.

Fátima logo
Fátima's logo. (Photo courtesy Tai Nalon)

Fátima will come at a crucial time in Brazil. General elections are scheduled for October, and Brazilian fact-checkers have been worried about fake news since it plagued the controversial impeachment of former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in 2016.

“We are confident that these two projects will help people in Brazil make more informed decisions about the content they consume on the internet and beyond," said Cláudia Gurfinkel, Facebook's head of news partnerships for Latin America, in Thursday’s announcement.

Both projects were selected from eight ideas that resulted from a round table in September, when academics, fact-checkers, journalists and news literacy experts gathered to discuss how to combat misinformation in Brazil, according to the announcement.

Poynter reached out to Facebook for additional comment, but had not heard back as of publication.

The online news literacy course, titled “Vaza, Falsiane!” (which translates to “Get out of here, Mrs. Fake”) will also receive R$150,000 to use a Facebook page to distribute videos, memes and quizzes that encourage scrutiny of online sources. Rodrigo Ratier, a Brazilian journalist and educator who helped develop the course, told Poynter in an email that news literacy projects are essential in Brazil because the subject isn’t taught in the national curriculum.

Still, he doesn’t think it can solve the misinformation problem alone.

“We know that media literacy, punctual by its nature, is not going to solve the fake news issue,” he said. “Nevertheless, it is an important part of a larger ecosystem against the problem ... especially in Latin America, media literacy programs are much needed.”

And Nalon agreed. Right now, Aos Fatos is focusing on developing a bot API, an AI decision tree and investigating how Brazilians consume news in order to make Fátima serve helpful debunking tips and official sources. But her long-term goal is to have the chatbot serve fact checks to readers automatically in order to confront fact-checking’s scalability problem. And that possibility is still up in the air.

“Misinformation will always be much more fast than we are able to fact-check,” she said. “The second phase is much more complex because we don’t know how we can empower Fátima to give readers the information they have to have.”

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