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VERA, the truth bot

In November 2021, VERA Files, our Check Global partner in the Philippines launched VERA, the first public misinformation tipline on Viber in the Asia Pacific region. Integrated with Check, Meedan’s platform for verification and annotation, VERA, the truth bot, guides users through the tipline. As the May 2022 presidential election nears in the Philippines, there is more false and misleading information on popular messaging platforms like Viber. This is why VERA Files Fact Check introduced VERA, a bot that can be Viber users’friend and ally in fighting disinformation and misinformation. The Check Global team interviewed the VERA Files team to learn more about the tipline and the response from Viber users.

Why and when did you choose to launch a tipline on Viber?

We launched our misinformation tipline on Viber in November 2021, which is six months before the Philippines’ upcoming presidential elections in May 2022.

In 2020, VERA Files did a social media analysis and found an opportunity to enter the dark social space. Dark social refers to private channels such as instant messaging apps and email where people interact in twos or in groups.

During the pandemic we saw an increase in the use of these private channels, such as governments and health agencies utilizing the space to reach the public. At the same time, disinformation and misinformation increasingly thrived in communities on dark social. This then became a space for fact checkers to also be in.

We thought that VERA Files going into dark social could help fight the lies by bringing facts to light, while also involving our subscribers in the process. We crowdsource leads for content that need fact checking, and if the tip is verifiable, VERA Files sends the requesters a bite-sized fact check that they can also share or forward to their communities.

What was the process of setting-up the tipline like? What steps did you take?

One of our editors Charmaine Deogracias, who also wears the hat of being our social media management expert, calls our process a three-pronged approach: it involved the strategy, decision and will to actually set up the tipline.

After identifying the opportunity to go into dark social, we set up a Viber community. It was launched in July 2021 by publishing in this space our live fact checks on President Rodrigo Duterte’s state of the nation address at the time. We earned a lot of subscribers during this event.

The first step to this was getting a verifiable business phone number registered under the VERA Files name with a telecommunications provider that best fit our needs. The process took about two weeks. This was the same amount of time it took for us to coordinate with Viber and get our Community a verified status.

We then got in touch with Meedan to help set up our misinformation tipline. They provided us with the infrastructure to set up a user-friendly interface on Viber, as well as an online workspace that receives all the requests. The messaging was personalized by VERA Files and tweaked to fit the features we wanted the tipline to have.

At the moment, our tipline subscribers can choose to do the following: 1) send a tip for fact checking, 2) subscribe to VERA Files’ weekly Viber newsletter, and 3) learn how to fact check.

Our belief is that everybody can and should be a fact checker. By setting up a tipline with these features, we’re working toward our goal of encouraging readers to practice the habit of verification and empowering them to fact-check.

We also discovered a special talent of one of our reporters, Klaire Ting, in illustration. It was she who gave the face to VERA the truth bot, which guides our subscribers through the tipline.

With a little more coordination with Viber, we were able to integrate VERA the truth bot into our Viber community which made it easier for subscribers to access the tipline through a nifty little bot button in the community’s menu. The setting up of the tipline from start to launch, including two testing phases, took about two months total.

What has been the response to the Viber tipline?

The response to the tipline has been very warm since its launch and we currently have over 170 subscribers.

Our misinformation tip line is the first of its kind on Viber in the Asia Pacific region, and we are very glad to put some eyes and ears on this space to encourage a more fact-based online environment.

Currently what kind of messages are users sending to the tipline?

Our tipline subscribers send a variety of fact check requests covering politics to vaccines to COVID-19 and social aid. It has been interesting to see the types of content that users send for fact checking as it paints a picture of the kind of misinformation and disinformation circulating in dark social. They send photos and text-based requests, but there are also a lot of submissions involving links to Facebook posts, YouTube videos and website articles.

What is the format of responses being sent to users, for example, are they mostly visual responses or text-based responses?

We send out both a text-based and visual response to eligible fact check requests.

It’s useful to send out both to serve different purposes. The text-based responses have a little more information and it also carries the link to the relevant fact check article. But we find value in publishing a visual format as well because we’ve noticed in our other social media channels that people interact more with posts that carry a visual asset.

The art card may be something that readers would be more enticed to forward to their family and peers, there is also that element of recognition because the art card carries a screenshot of the post we are fact checking.

__What are your plans for the tipline for 2022? __

Currently in the pipeline for 2022 is to promote the use of the tipline in Filipino communities overseas, such as workers and students who often keep in touch with their families at home through dark social. For context, there are an estimated 2.2 million overseas Filipino workers.

This journey begins with our partnership with Taiwan FactCheck Center to encourage the use of the tipline among the Filipino communities in Taiwan.

This is a critical time for us to cultivate the habit of fact-checking: apart from the COVID-19 pandemic and infodemic, there is also much online disinformation concerning the 2022 Philippine elections.

We also plan to improve our response times to the fact-check requests that we receive. Having limited manpower, one of our pain points is responding promptly to user submissions.

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