With money from Facebook, this Brazilian fact-checker created a Messenger bot for the election

Editor's note: This story has been updated with Facebook's latest monthly user numbers for Brazil.

Six months ahead of the Brazilian election, one fact-checker is using support from Facebook to better reach its readers.

The project, called “Projeto Lupe!”, allows people to ask for verified information on everything from candidate statements to viral fake news stories — all by sending Agência Lupa a message on Facebook, which has about 125 million monthly users in Brazil.

"When people are well-informed, they can make better decisions,” said Cristina Tardáguila, director of Agência Lupa, in a press release sent to Poynter. “We want to help voters in Brazil find correct information about those who aspire to become our country's leaders.”

The bot was inspired by a Messenger model tested by Le Monde’s Les Decodéurs during the 2017 French election, adapted for Agência Lupa by AppCivico. The project, announced Monday and also including fact-checking videos and educational pieces about the electoral process, is funded by R$250,000 (about $75,000) from Facebook, which has taken a particular interest in Brazil ahead of the October general election — particularly in the role of chatbots in curbing online misinformation. (Disclosure: Facebook has supported Poynter teaching in the past.)

"We want to help reduce disinformation and promote high-quality journalistic content on the platform," said Claudia Gurfinkel, Facebook's head of news partnerships in Latin America, in the release. "Fighting misinformation is a challenge for all of us, and we are excited to be partnering with organizations like Lupa.”

In January, Facebook announced that it was funding two news literacy projects in Brazil in an effort to prevent social media users from sharing fake news. While the first is a course aimed at helping young people and educators avoid falling for hoaxes, the second is a separate Messenger bot from fact-checking project Aos Fatos that provides users with tips and resources for debunking misinformation. Facebook gave the fact-checker R$150,000 (more than $45,000) to build it.

“We are supporting a wide range of partnerships with local fact-checkers, news outlets, journalism schools, and NGOs across several countries,” a Facebook spokesperson told Poynter in an email. “These projects include a diverse set of new initiatives, such as news literacy courses to help people make more informed decisions, bots for Messenger — like the one we are announcing now with Agência Lupa and the one we announced in the beginning of the year with Aos Fatos.”

The goal of the Aos Fatos project, named “Fátima” — shorthand for “fact machine” — and expected to launch in June, is to enable users to become their own fact-checkers in a country where people have increasingly been concerned about the role of misinformation. Meanwhile, Projeto Lupe! — a Portuguese verb that Agência Lupa created for itself, similar to “to google” —  allows people to ask about specific pieces of information to see if it’s true.

“People will be able to use a Messenger bot to fact check information about the elections,” the release reads. “Lupa’s database will help verify the content and determine whether it is true, false or distorted. It will also provide links to external articles about the topic.”

In addition to rumor debunking and statement verification, Projeto Lupe! is working with Brazilian election authorities to debunk misperceptions about the electoral process. That’s different from Les Decodéurs’ tool, which was mainly aimed at giving readers information about the reliability of a website, access to previous fact checks and hints about how to check information. Décodex, a database of fake news sites accessible via browser extension and the outlet’s website, serves as the engine for the bot.

Samuel Laurent, editor of Les Decodéurs, told Poynter in an email that their Messenger bot wasn’t funded by Facebook, instead relying on money from Google’s Digital News Initiative. Adrien Sénécat, a journalist at Les Décodeurs, told Poynter in a separate email that the bot was used between tens and hundreds of times per day both during the election and after, and that the Décodex browser extension has about 40,000 active users.

“You could say that our bot is less-used than our other tools but it also enables us to reach other people,” he said. “Maybe Lupa's can drive more people to its bot because they will go 100 percent on it, while we created a bunch of tools and let people pick the one they would like the most.”

“But the main limitation is that people have to go to your page to chat with the bot, and Facebook doesn't really push cool bots so they mostly reach an audience that already knows the brand.”

When asked why Facebook is pumping money into Brazilian fact-checking, a spokesperson told Poynter in an email that it has to do with getting ahead of fake news before the election. Projeto Lupe! brings the company’s total project funding in Brazil to R$550,000 (more than $165,000), money that’s separate from Facebook’s third-party fact-checking partnerships. The spokesperson said Facebook is interested in expanding that program to other Latin American countries, but declined to name specific ones.

The latest move from Facebook is part of a broader strategy to fund fact-checking and news literacy initiatives across Latin America. In Colombia, the social network is funding a fact-checking initiative led by Consejo de Redacción ahead of the May election. Meanwhile, in Mexico — where Facebook recently expanded its third-party fact-checking program — the tech company is lending a hand in Verificado 2018, a collaborative initiative to fact-check claims going into this summer’s general election.

The company is still evaluating other projects along this vein, a spokesperson told Poynter.

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