Poynter Institute launches WhatsApp chatbot to debunk coronavirus-related hoaxes

Manish Singh
·3 min read

You can now debunk thousands of coronavirus-related hoaxes with a few texts on WhatsApp .

Poynter Institute, a non-profit organization that supports journalism, today launched a bot on the Facebook -owned service that will allow people across the globe to debunk over 4,000 hoaxes surrounding the pandemic such as whether the infectious disease originated in a lab in Wuhan, China. (A belief popular in many circles, though no conclusive evidence to support this claim has been disclosed to the public yet -- so a no for now. That's what the bot -- citing fact-checking organizations -- also says, for the record.)

The chatbot relies on information supplied by over 100 independent fact-checkers in more than 70 countries. It’s the largest database of debunked falsehoods related to COVID-19, said Poynter Institute. The service is currently available in English, but support for other languages including Hindi, Spanish and Portuguese are in the works, said WhatsApp.

Users can test the chatbot by either saving +1 (727) 2912606 as a contact number and texting the word "hi." Alternatively, they can click on http://poy.nu/ifcnbot that does not require one to save the chatbot’s number to their phonebook.

Once they have texted "hi" to the bot, sending "1" prompts a new message from the chatbot that asks them to enter the keyword or a short sentence of their query. Then you can type “origin,” “garlic” (to know if there is any evidence that this herb helps in fighting with coronavirus -- there isn’t) or any other keyword that is on your mind. (You may have to wait for 2-3 seconds every time you engage with this chatbot and let it respond to your query before you ask a new question.)

The chatbot identifies a user’s country (by checking their mobile country code), and provides them with information that has been fact-checked by an organization that is closest to them. It also shares general tips to fight the coronavirus outbreak.

The service, which is free and works round the clock, says in its terms of condition that it may aggregate and share anonymous results of user queries and other interactions with the research community and program partners. But “your personal information, however, will never be shared.”

In a statement, Baybars Orsek, IFCN's Director, said, “Billions of users rely on WhatsApp to stay in touch with their friends and families every month. Since bad actors use every single platform to disseminate falsehoods, to mislead others during such troubling times, fact-checkers’ work is more important than ever.”

The new chatbot is the latest effort from WhatsApp, used by more than 2 billion people, to curb the spread of misinformation on its platform. In recent months, WhatsApp has also collaborated with the WHO to launch an information service that reached more than 10 million users within days. The Facebook-owned service is also working with federal and state governments in many markets to help them deliver authoritative information about the infectious disease in many countries.

WhatsApp, which recently introduced new limit on forwarding messages on its app that has significantly cut down the number of forwards it sees on the platform, donated $1 million to Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) in March.