How Chatbots Can Help Stop the Spread of Fake News

During the COVID-19 pandemic, social media platforms have joined the fight against fake news by using chatbots to provide fast, reliable information.

By Ellen Gans
April 16, 2020

These days, social media is experiencing even more popularity than usual as a way to stay connected with friends, family, and colleagues during social distancing regulations stemming from the widespread novel coronavirus.

Yet with all this connection comes a risk of exposure to unregulated, unverified information. You might be savvy enough to see through that sensational post that your uncle shared yesterday, but that’s not the case for everyone. People who are already feeling vulnerable, isolated, and confused can easily be led astray by false, biased, or otherwise misleading information.

Malicious or not, fake news can be dangerous

Unfortunately, there are a lot of trolls out there who are looking to fulfill an agenda or simply to drum up drama. Not all of this “fake news” is produced or shared with malicious intent. Particularly in such a sensitive time, people are hungry for information and may be more susceptible to sharing and/or believing news that they’d otherwise be wary of.

Regardless of the intent, fake news can have a devastating impact. A heartbreaking example is the Arizona couple who wrongly believed that ingesting chloroquine would protect them from the coronavirus. After self-administering the highly potent chemical, the husband died.

A weapon in the fight against fake news

Several social media platforms have joined the fight against fake news. During the coronavirus pandemic, Twitter has been working to promote information from reputable sources, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), so that when people search for details, those sources (optimally) drown out the trolls.

“As the crisis developed, [Twitter] also stepped up its use of machine learning algorithms to detect the spread of false information that had the potential to cause harm, and flag that content for removal,” reports Forbes.

One major weapon that’s emerging in the fight against fake news is chatbots. WHO has collaborated with popular messaging app WhatsApp to launch a coronavirus chatbot. When users receive messages on WhatsApp containing potentially inaccurate information about the coronavirus, they can use the chatbot to seek out reliable information to help either confirm or deny what they’ve heard.

Facebook owns WhatsApp, and the social media giant has been collaborating with WHO and with individual governments on the initiative. One such governmental collaboration is with India, where the entire country is on lockdown.

According to Business Insider, the WhatsApp coronavirus chatbot “is relatively simple and doesn’t respond to natural language or questions from users. Instead, users can send numbers (or emojis) to get information on corresponding topics—like ‘mythbusters,’ ‘travel advice,’ or how to donate to aid efforts.”

Why is this important? Business Insider points out that WhatsApp is particularly prone to the spread of misinformation since it uses end-to-end encryption. Translation: When users send messages to each other, WhatsApp and Facebook can’t moderate them. By offering up a way for users to verify the information that they receive privately, WhatsApp is hoping to be part of the solution instead of inadvertently contributing to the problem.

The power of the bot

WhatsApp is discovering what other chatbot users already know: Chatbots can help engage a large number of people, with limited human intervention. This is helpful not only for combating fake news but also for hands-off customer support. Chatbots can create a more personalized, real-time, two-way experience that can’t be replicated through mass emails or form inquiries.

The WhatsApp coronavirus chatbot represents the latest deployment of this increasingly popular technology. And, with 1.5 billion users on WhatsApp, this will be a massive exploration of the power of the bot. Stay tuned, stay healthy, and remember to use reputable sources to verify any information you receive.