Here comes a tool, approved by WhatsApp, to automate the distribution of fact-checks

August 9, 2019
Category: Uncategorized

The love/hate relationship between fact-checkers and reader-submitted tips from private messaging may soon be a thing of the past.

Meedan, the software company behind Check, a task management system used in collaboration by fact-checkers all over the world, has unveiled a new tool that would automate responses to tipsters without ever having to bother a fact-checker.

With the approval and technical support from WhatsApp, Meedan, a non-profit tech startup in San Francisco, launched a new set of tools on Thursday that will be featured on Check.

According to Ed Bice, Meedan’s CEO and co-founder, the new feature will allow users to receive a piece of content on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat or other private messaging apps and directly forward it to a fact-checking organization. It’ll be just like forwarding the message to a friend or a family member. And if that piece of content has already been fact-checked, then the user will receive an automated answer, extracted directly from a fact-checker’s article in seconds.

“(Users) will automatically receive the results of that fact-check, along with some simple information about why the conclusion was reached, and a visual card that is designed to be shareable,” said Bice in an email to the IFCN.

Fact-checkers may also profit from Meedan’s new tool. Until now, organizations that verify content shared on private messaging apps have been overwhelmed by floods of individual requests, since they’ve been unable to answer in bulk. Bice observed the need to be able to act more efficiently during the Indian presidential election. Fact-checkers there have been inundated with bogus images about major events, such as the Kashmir terrorist attack and fake child kidnappers. Now, Bice promises a more intelligent way of solving the problem of distributing verified articles.

“If the content people send to be fact-checked is new — if it doesn’t exist in the database — then it will go into a queue for fact-checkers and, when they reach a conclusion using Check, a notification will automatically go out to the audience member(s) who shared that content with the results of the fact check,” explained Brice.

According to the CEO, this new tool can receive submissions in any language. Check is currently available in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Arabic, Russian and Romanian. The downside is that it isn’t free.

Read our Q&A with Bice below.

Why did you decide to work with messaging apps now?

Misinformation spread via private messaging channels is a significant emergent challenge and one that has been hard to understand due to the private nature of the platforms (compared to more open platforms like Facebook and Twitter).

For Verificado 2018 (co-founded by Pop-Up Newsroom, AJ+ Español and Animal Politico), in Mexico, we opened a WhatsApp account using the WhatsApp Business tool and received tens of thousands of requests for verification. Each request required a manual response from a journalist, and this often involved reporters sending content to duplicate requests (lots of people requesting the same thing be checked), without having a data-driven view of how many of those requests they were receiving. This was a significant manual workload that offered little added value and limited the number of requests we were able to deal with.

In 2018 Pop-Up Newsroom (an initiative co-founded by Meedan and Dig Deeper), we ran a workshop in India with media stakeholders to discuss the upcoming elections, and the challenge of misinformation on WhatsApp came up as a leading challenge. But to address this at scale, we needed better tools to reduce the amount of work of manually responding to individual requests — tools that let journalists and fact-checkers focus on the work of investigating claims and memes they’re receiving.

How will the new feature work from the audience perspective?

Audience members can send links, claims, images and memes to a dedicated WhatsApp number (or Facebook Messenger account, for example).

If that content has already been checked by fact-checkers using the tool, they’ll automatically receive the results of that fact-check, along with some simple information about why the conclusion was reached, and a visual card that is designed to be shareable.

If the content is “new” (if it doesn’t exist in the database), then it goes into a queue for fact-checkers, and when they reach a conclusion using Check, a notification will automatically go out to the audience member(s) who shared that content with the results of the fact-check.

And how will it work from fact-checkers?

Fact-checkers will see all incoming requests in Check, where they can apply their own structured process.

This can include assigning requests to different team members, assigning steps in the structured process to team members, tagging the content and ultimately assigning it a status (true, false, misleading, etc.).

Check also has a simple interface for creating a “meme card” that can be sent back to the audience. When a status is assigned, the audience member who submitted that content automatically receives a notification showing the results of that fact-check, along with some simple information about why the conclusion was reached, and any visuals created in Check.

How different is this set of tools from WhatsApp for Business and other APIs they offer to distribute fact-checked content?

Check is the only tool for fact-checkers to date that integrates directly with the official WhatsApp Business API, which was launched in August 2018.

As described, using the WhatsApp Business App is extremely manual and labor-intensive, and Check helps automate the task of responding to users, while also giving fact-checkers an interface to conduct the work that is flexible to their own process of investigation.

The U.S. will have a presidential election in 2020, but Americans are not heavy WhatsApp users. What markets do you want to reach next year?

Because Check integrates with the WhatsApp Business API through Smooch (recently acquired by Zendesk), it also works with the other channels offered by Smooch (which is an omnichannel conversation API).

These channels include Facebook Messenger, Twitter DM, Telegram, LINE and WeChat — though we have yet to implement integrations with these services with partners.

Smooch thus offers Check a simple way to expand the functionality that currently works via WhatsApp to other private messaging tools that might be used more in a given market, for example the U.S. We are in discussions with partners in Argentina, the U.S. and Canada — all who have upcoming elections — besides elsewhere who would like to implement this solution.

A tool that makes it easier for citizens to demand fact-checks from their private messaging apps could have a huge impact on fact-checking organizations: It could flood their newsrooms. What are your thoughts on this?

Opening up channels for public submissions always risks a flood of requests — that’s true of any submission process. Check helps this in a couple of ways.

Firstly, by providing duplication detection, Check can help highlight the claims that are being requested by many audience members. This is a prioritization signal for fact-checkers that a given claim, link or meme is spreading virally and might be a priority for checking.

Secondly, Check addresses the current challenge of manually responding to individual requests — literally a journalist copying and pasting a link to a fact check into a chat with an audience member.

Every time an audience member submits content that has already been checking in Check, they receive an automated response to the fact-checking work – significantly reducing the burden on fact-checkers and freeing them up to focus on the fact-checking itself.

Is Check authorized by WhatsApp? Or is there a chance we might see the Facebook-owned app changing its codes or APIs and turning this new feature into something non-functional?

Yes, this integration was built in partnership and with support from WhatsApp.

It’s an approved integration with the official Business API, rather than being built on unofficial APIs that may be in contravention of the WhatsApp terms of service and thus likely to be closed down.

Is Check ready to work in every language and in every country? How much does it cost?

The Check interface is currently available in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Arabic, Russian and Romanian, though Check can receive submissions in any language and has a language detection feature that lets fact-checkers sort claims by language.

Journalists can customize the responses sent to audience members submitting contents, and can thus use any language they choose for this. In India, for example, submissions were received — and responses sent — in Hindi, Telugu, Bengali, Malayalam, in addition to English.

Costs will vary project-to-project, we’re happy to discuss these on a case-by-case basis.

How will Meedan measure this feature’s success? What are your KPIs?

In terms of responding to audience members, we measure the technical response time for automated responses, the positive duplication detection rate and the submission completion rate (e.g.,. are users able to complete the submission process, or for some reason are they unable to do so).

In terms of supporting the fact-checkers, this is more complicated as some claims are significantly more challenging to investigate than others, but broadly we measure the time it takes to assign a final status to a piece of content, task completion rate (i.e. how many steps in the fact-checkers’ process do they complete), and we also get qualitative feedback from fact-checkers on how useful Check is for their work and where we need to improve functionality and design.