Sophie Raynor – During the coronavirus pandemic, one of the biggest concerns for health officials has been the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 – especially via social media sites like Facebook and WhatsApp.
The problem has forced both tech giants to act. For example, last month WhatsApp tightened its forwarding limits, so users can't share a message to more than one chat group.
While the company says it's seen a 70 per cent drop in 'highly forwarded' messages, it hasn't stopped the spread of rumours completely.
So in Timor Leste, the country's Health Ministry is trying out its own WhatsApp messaging service, as a way to meet the misinformation where it lives.
Catalpa International, a not-for-profit technology organisation working in Timor-Leste has partnered with the Health Ministry on a Whatsapp-based chatbot.
Once a user has signed up, the chatbot sends reliable information, statistics and graphics from reputable sources, including the Timor Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization.
They can choose a topic they're interested in learning more about, and the chatbot sends out receive automated messages with more information.
Raphael Merx is a software developer with Catalpa and says the concept is about targeting people where they already are: on WhatsApp.
"If you don't have some kind of official presence on WhatsApp, you're basically leaving the platform entirely to organic information spreading which sometimes is made of a lot of rumours," he said.
While the number of users of the chatbot are still small, Catalpa's health team leader Gabriele Leite Soares says those who are signed up, are placing a high level of trust in it.
"Every day we see returning users, the people who really they come, they wanted to access the latest number of cases, the news. So seeing returning users...is the testimony that people trust this platform as a source of information," she said.