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California’s Chatbot Joins Fight Against COVID-19 Misinformation

The California Department of Public Health recently developed a chatbot to help answer questions and combat misinformation related to COVID-19 vaccinations. What’s more is that the resource was designed with equity in mind.

A person touching digital renderings of speech bubbles to indicate interacting with a chatbot.
The California Department of Public Health has released a chatbot to help in the fight against misinformation related to COVID-19.

Despite the time passed and expert knowledge gained since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, misinformation continues — especially where the vaccine is concerned. The strategies to combat false narratives vary — some entities have looked to technology like AI, while others look to legislation solutions.

The tool, which was officially launched last month, aligns with the state’s SMARTER response and recovery plan, which stands for Shots, Masks, Awareness, Readiness, Testing, Education and Rx.

Misinformation can be damaging to public health, as it can undermine vaccine confidence and act as a barrier to people protecting their own health, explained Ashley Clark, the press secretary for the Vaccinate All 58 campaign — an effort of CDPH’s COVID-19 Task Force.

“We want to make sure folks know that these [vaccines] have been heavily studied, that they’re safe, they’re effective, and way better than having COVID-19 ...,” she stated.

The chatbot came out of a partnership between CDPH and Meta to get reliable information to the public, Clark said.

The state wanted to ensure that Spanish-speaking audiences were included in this effort, as equity has been a focus for CDPH’s recovery strategy.

Clark said that involved working to “meet people where they’re at” with the WhatsApp platform, as it is a trusted communication tool that people are already using to have conversations with their friends, family and peers.

“That is why we wanted to use WhatsApp, because it’s a very popular communication channel, especially among Spanish speakers,” Clark said.

Screenshot of chat with CDPH’s COVID-19 chatbot sharing information about menu options, with information categorized by appointment information, vaccine safety, current state recommendations, digital COVID-19 vaccine record and other vaccine information.
CDPH’s COVID-19 chatbot offers menu options for users.
Users simply scan a QR code or text “hola” to 833-422-1090 to activate the chatbot. The tool offers menu options in English and Spanish, with information categorized by appointment information, vaccine safety, current state recommendations, digital COVID-19 vaccine record and other vaccine information.

This chatbot is accessible to answer questions for the public 24 hours a day.

And while it does require an Internet connection to use, it can be accessed via computer or smartphone and can be used through Wi-Fi for those without data plans. And for those individuals without any access to the Internet, CDPH’s other resources — including a COVID-19 telephone hotline that offers support in multiple languages — will remain available.

The information distributed to the public through this tool comes from, CDPH’s website for learning about and scheduling vaccinations, Clark said. The chatbot was programmed to answer frequently asked questions that come through the hotline and other channels like community outreach initiatives.

Screenshot of CDPH’s COVID-19 chatbot responding to questions about the COVID-19 vaccine to dispel misinformation about it making people magnetic or having a tracking device.
CDPH’s COVID-19 chatbot responds to questions about the COVID-19 vaccine to dispel misinformation.
“Also, it’s AI,” Clark said. “So folks are continually asking questions that aren’t necessarily outlined in the programmed responses, and the chatbot tries to answer to the best of its ability.”

The tool will be updated continually — approximately every two weeks — to ensure that new questions are being added and the public is able to access up-to-date information on state guidelines and other things they may need to know.

The chatbot was created in about a month’s time from the idea’s inception to the launch of a working product, Clark stated, crediting the partnership’s collaborative nature for the rate of development.

The partnership has also enabled the state to promote the availability of the tool more widely to the public through ad credits on Facebook, which paired with other advertising channels the agency used.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.