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A Bilingual Tool That Fights Misinformation On WhatsApp


As we get closer to Election Day, you might be noticing a spike in the amount of misinformation and disinformation you're seeing online on a variety of different platforms like Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. But if you speak Spanish and use that language with friends and relatives and to get your news, you're probably getting bombarded with it on one particular platform.

WhatsApp is the app of choice for many who keep in touch with relatives throughout Latin America and the United States. And because the messages are encrypted, it's hard to trace the origins of stories shared by WhatsApp users. It also creates a unique way for anybody outside of the United States to filter inaccurate or deliberately misleading information into the country - that according to Randy Pestana, assistant director of research at Florida International University's institute for public policy.

RANDY PESTANA: External state actors don't actually have to target these Latin groups in the United States. You can go to their host country, spread the news there. If it comes up on media, let's say, in Colombia, oftentimes, what you'll find is the Colombian relative will then send it to their relatives in Miami, and then it'll be shared throughout Miami. So you don't even need to target the United States. You can target another country.

MARTIN: But there are efforts to fight the spread of online misinformation and disinformation. Right now, we're going to hear about one of the newest ones. It's a fact-checking tool available to WhatsApp users in both English and Spanish. It's called FactChat. It was developed by the Poynter Institute's International Fact-Checking Network. And joining us now to tell us more is associate director Cristina Tardaguila.

Cristina Tardaguila, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

CRISTINA TARDAGUILA: Thank you. It's a great pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: So tell me more about FactChat. How does it work?

TARDAGUILA: It's quite easy. If you are a English speaker, and you have your phone in your hand with a WhatsApp account on it, you just have to type hi dot F-A-C-T-C-H-A-T - which means FactChat - dot me. And if you're a Spanish speaker, you should have to change the hi for hola - so it's H-O-L-A dot FactChat dot me.

And once you do that, you're going to see your WhatsApp popping up, and you're going to have to send the message that is there, and you're going to receive a numerical menu. And you just have to type the number that you want. If you want to just search, you type one. If you want to read the latest fact-checks, you type two. And that's the way the fact-checkers in the United States found to fight misinformation on WhatsApp, which is quite big today.

MARTIN: You were telling us that there - that the amount of misinformation and disinformation targeting Spanish speakers is a lot. So are you seeing a spike in this? Are you seeing sort of an increase as we get closer to the Election Day? Although I do have to say, I think everybody knows this. You know, people are already voting. Millions of people have already cast their ballots. But what sort of ideas or misinformation and disinformation are we talking about?

TARDAGUILA: Well, we are - when we talk about the Latino community, what we see from the fact-checking point of view is a lot of messages trying to connect both Trump and Biden to politicians in different countries. So we see a lot of messages trying to correlate both the candidates to Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Maduro in Venezuela, Chavez in Venezuela - also with Castro in Cuba, a little bit with the Colombian president. So that's one point.

The second point that we're seeing is a lot of interest from the Latino community in fact-checks related to abortion. It's, like, family and religion seems to play a big role in these things in this type of disinformation. And also, we are seeing lots of hoaxes relating Biden to pedophile cases. And we are also seeing Trump being accused of having harassed a young model. Both informations (ph) are completely false. They don't stand up, right? This is what I say that's scary. It's just not false, but it's also defamation.

MARTIN: So it's beyond the realm of sort of vigorous political discourse. It's just maligning these people in really disgusting ways, is I think what I hear you saying. So you just launched this tool just last month. Have WhatsApp users taken to it? Have you gotten a sense of how widely it's being used at this point?

TARDAGUILA: Oh, yeah. Yeah. We're having a very interesting analytics about the chatbot. And right now, we have five times more users in the Spanish version than in the English version, which tells us that, first, this was the tool that was much needed and expected.

Also, I can tell you that we are getting spikes of 24,000 messages per day, which is very, very big if you're comparing to my experience back in Brazil in 2018. It's at least, like, four times bigger - the use of the - the usage of the bot here in this election. So we're very confident that this is an important tool and an important experience.

MARTIN: The second presidential debate on Thursday featured a number of statements that fact-checkers identified as false or misleading. Did you see a lot of use of the app after the debate or during it?

TARDAGUILA: Yes, Michel. The debates were very interesting - all of them, not only the last one. We did live fact-checking, and all 12 partners were active during the night publishing content. And that was being input into the chatbot.

In all debates, we had big spikes in the usage numbers. And - but the latest debate, the members of the fact-check collaboration found at least 50 claims that were either misleading, lacking context or just oversimplified. So anyone that was actually using FactChat during that last debate was able to see the fact-checks in real time, which is pretty cool.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, why does this matter? I think some people might be listening to our conversation and go, oh, well, it's just - you know, it's just politics. People say stuff. You know, sometimes it's true, sometimes it's not true. What's the big deal? So what is the big deal?

TARDAGUILA: So, well, first of all, you have to understand that every decision in your life is based on information. So if you have bad information, then you're probably going to have a bad decision, right? But I - what I fear is the fact that when you get a piece of misinformation that confirms your bias, so you're sticking to your own ideas and your own thoughts, you're not being able or open to actually talk to others and share ideas and debate.

And that's what's expected during a campaign when you're just getting stuff that will confirm what you are thinking and what you are expecting. So this means that falsehoods in the United States are actually separating people. They are actually helping polarize the country. So that's why it's all so bad.

MARTIN: That was Cristina Tardaguila with the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute. She's telling us about the FactChat tool.

Cristina Tardaguila, thank you so much for speaking with us.

TARDAGUILA: It was great. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR'S "NAOKI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.