Home / Industry News & Reports / On WeChat and More: Does Volunteer Fact-checking Work?


Volunteer editors gather at a recent Cofacts meetup in Taiwan. (Photo via Splice)

WeChat, WhatsApp, Weibo, and Line, messaging platforms that attract millions of users, all are known to be conduits for misinformation and rumors. Now, in varying ways and with varying degrees of success, fact-checkers are trying to deal with the problem.

Line, an app developed in Japan which has taken off in Taiwan and Indonesia, has an estimated 17 million users in Taiwan who can easily forward messages, but not so easily challenge the veracity of those messages.

Writes Kirsten Han in Splice, a media start-up based in Singapore:

This is especially so in family chat groups, where, for instance, people can find it difficult or awkward to confront relatives who are easily able to forward false or misleading messages, or spam and scams.

Now, Line users who doubt the truthfulness of some information they’ve received can forward the message to Cofacts, a collaborative platform formed by a Taiwanese civic tech community. The message is received by a chatbot and added to a publicly viewable database, where volunteer editors fact-check the item. If different editors disagree, they can all provide responses, allowing the original user to reach his or her own conclusions. Cofacts offers editorial guidelines, Splice reports.

Any interested volunteers can log into the database of submitted messages and start evaluating the messages, using the Cofacts form. Cofacts offers step-by-step instructions for those who can’t figure out how to use the platform, as well as a set of clear editorial guidelines that helps volunteers weed out uncheckable messages or ones that are “personal opinion,” and what types of reliable sources they can use to back up their fact-checking work.

Based on data collected by the Cofacts team on the messages they’ve received so far, the misinformation debunked on the platform can range from fake promotions and medical misinformation to false claims about government policies.

Can the volunteer editors keep up with the number of items that need fact-checking? And can the system protect against “rogue” volunteers, who may not necessarily follow the guidelines?

There’s a good deal of concern that volunteers don’t always address the misinformation problem, and that sometimes it’s opinions of the volunteers, rather than the facts, that end up being transmitted via an app.

Chi Zhang, a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California and a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, spoke with Daniel Funke who covers fact-checking, online misinformation and fake news for the International Fact-Checking Network at The Poynter Institute.

Content providers on WeChat, Zhang told Funke, don’t really abide by any journalistic norms.”

Writes Funke:

The same can be said for the small groups of part-time debunkers who have made a hobby out of fact-checking WeChat rumors. Zhang said many of those groups are run by people without journalism training or a priority for values like objectivity, nonpartisanship and fairness.

“These are also not really journalists — they have full-time jobs, they’re researchers or students or people just doing this as a side gig,” she said. “Objectivity is not their main concern. Sometimes there is subjective evaluation in the piece, saying things like, ‘This is so ridiculous’ … The kinds of conversations are more casual and less focused around hoaxes, but in that way, you build a very engaged group of readers.”

Read more at The Poynter Institute and Splice.