Two news outlets in Thailand and the Philippines experiment with a tip-line feature, allowing journalists to collaborate with users in closed messenger groups to authenticate information.
While traditional social media companies are stepping up their fact-checking efforts to counter misinformation on their platforms, doing the same in closed groups on different messaging apps proves to be an almost impossible task.
“Dark social platforms” is a term sometimes used to describe messaging apps because of their privacy features, encryption and closed nature, which pose a real challenge for fact-checkers. Such spaces have become ideal platforms for spreading disinformation, which often leads to a polarization of online discourse, explained Celine Isabelle Samson, head of social media fact-checking at VERA Files, an independent news outlet in the Philippines.
Two fact-checking initiatives in Asia, VERA Files and the private news agency Sure and Share Center in Thailand, recognize the importance of expanding their reach to messaging apps, which they use not only as channels to distribute information, but also to gather tips from their audiences for fact-checking, and engage with them to combat disinformation.
In both Thailand and the Philippines, messaging platforms like Line and Viber, which offer an alternative to traditional social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, are on the rise, and during the pandemic, the use of these private channels increased even more. According to Jessada Salathong, Assistant Professor of Communications at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, the popularity of Viber and Line across all age groups is grounded in their “fun use” allowing users to create and send stickers.
While Facebook remains the dominant platform, in January 2022, Line boasted about 44 million users in Thailand to Facebook’s 52 million users. In the Philippines, Viber had more than 40 million monthly users, over half of Facebook’s 80 million.
Peerapon Anutarasoat and his team at Sure and Share Center had already recognized the growing significance of messaging apps years ago. Back in 2016, and in response to the constant requests from their community to fact-check information, they launched a tip-line service on their Line channel, which allows community members to directly submit information encountered on the messaging platform, to be verified by fact-checkers.
Since 2016, the Center has seen significant growth of its social media activity. As of March 2023, the Center had 67,127 “friends’’ on their Line channel where they also share fact-checked multimedia content produced for their other social media platforms, most notably, the explanatory videos on their YouTube channel. Their Facebook page has 332,284 followers, while their TikTok account has 1.4 million followers.
With such a huge follower base, the Center receives so many fact-checking tips that the task of promptly responding to all incoming inquiries is hardly feasible. Although the Center boasts a dedicated team of 10 journalists, including two staff members assigned to respond to tip requests individually in both Thai and English, the remaining team members are busy with data management, fact-checking articles or videos, and content production. They cannot provide fact-checkers on call 24/7 to answer tip-line requests, and have no automated bot at their disposal, so the Center has also explored offline methods to engage with their community and combat the spread of misinformation.
One example to these efforts is their 2021 collaboration with Thammasat University on the Fake News Fighter Project. Together, they developed a 90-minute-long game, using simulated newsrooms, for the university students to learn how to fact-check information swiftly. This training is now a part of the university’s journalism curriculum to ensure that future journalists have all the skills they need.
It was during the pandemic and six months before the presidential elections in the Philippines, that VERA Files recognized the need to expand their activities to dark social channels, and start a new fact-checking experiment which would also involve their subscribers in the process. Like the Thai project, they joined up with Meedan, a global technology company in November 2021 to co-develop VERA the truth bot, a tip-line service whose goal is to engage and collaborate with their audiences to provide a crucial element for constructive discourse: fact-based information.
Vera the truth bot is a partially automated chat bot available on Viber, which allows anyone to submit a “tip” for fact checking. The tip could be photos, text-based articles, links to YouTube videos, or community posts on Facebook or Twitter in English or Filipino. The VERA Files team of 20 journalists and fact-checkers then responds to these messages on a rotation basis. Once verified, the fact-checked article is sent back to the individual who submitted the tip, while others with the same query receive an automated link. These verified stories are also published on the VERA Files website.Between January and December 2022, the team received 2,743 tips in English and Filipino.
One of the reasons for this significant number of requests was that VERA files successfully tapped into a key feature of Viber, the sticker market, to engage with their audiences through a gamification approach, and created incentives for users to participate in their fact-checking efforts.Viber has a sticker market where users can create and personalize all kinds of stickers, even their own pictures with animation and sound, for free. In 2016 alone, “Filipinos sent 44 million stickers each month” on Viber, according to CNN Philippines.
VERA Files also used Viber’s sticker feature when trying to encourage the 159,000 Filipino migrants in Taiwan to use their tip-line prior to the 2022 elections. With the help of the Taiwan Fact Check Center, volunteers set up booths in areas where the Filipino community live, and distributed flyers explaining how the tip-line works. Despite these efforts, it remained difficult to reach Filipino migrants in Taiwan using Viber, simply because Line is more popular among this community and VERA Files did not have the resources to set up the truth bot on a second messaging platform.
These two examples from the Philippines and Thailand illustrate how journalists and fact-checkers have to use innovative methods (stickers, gamification or a mix of offline and online features) to engage with their audiences and broaden the impact of their fact-checking activities. However, despite their best efforts, some level of cooperation from the tech platforms is essential. Without the platforms integrating fact-checking services in their apps, opening up their data to facilitate the development of new services, or establishing closer partnerships, fact-checkers will never be able to effectively overcome some of the inherent limitations of the messaging apps for outside developers.