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May 8, 2017, 4:19 p.m.
Mobile & Apps

After a snap election was called in the U.K., the BBC turned its Brexit bot into an election bot

“You have to take a 500-word news article and think: If I was to see this in the form of a series of message alerts, what would I want to see and what would I leave out? That’s a different way of thinking about journalism.”

Last month, British prime minister Theresa May called a surprise snap election. Parliament was quickly dissolved and MPs headed back to their constituencies across the country to campaign ahead of the June 8 vote.

At the BBC, the election also brought about a change of plans. In March, the broadcaster had launched a Facebook Messenger bot solely focused on Brexit and the process surrounding the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union. But with an election looming, the BBC decided to turn its Brexit bot into an election bot covering the campaign.

“We all felt it would have been remiss of us to have taken the concept of what we were doing with Brexit and just to shelve it for six or seven weeks while the election campaign was going on,” said BBC News social media editor Mark Frankel.

“The prime minister has, in her own words, called this election to shore up her position to give her the opportunity, as she puts it, to negotiate with a stronger hand over Brexit,” he continued. “Whether the electorate sees it in exactly those terms entirely another matter, but the fact is that this election in the eyes of Theresa May has been called partly as a consequence of where we are with Brexit. There is an association and we felt it was important to reflect that.”

The BBC launched the temporary rebranding of the bot on Saturday, and it plans to have the bot focus on election coverage through next month’s vote.

The broadcaster launched the bot in late March after May triggered Article 50, which formally began the two-year negotiations over Brexit. So far, Frankel said “the numbers are still relatively small relative to the footprint we have on the website,” but he hoped that it would ultimately attract “thousands of people.”

The bot is affiliated with the BBC Politics Facebook page. The broadcaster worked with The Bot Platform, a London-based Messenger bot developer, to create the bot.

Like many legacy outlets, the BBC sees Facebook, and Messenger in particular, as a way to reach a younger, more female, and more diverse audience. Last year, the BBC decided to launch a number of single topic Facebook pages covering areas such as entertainment, family and education, and lifestyle and health news. It sees the Messenger bot as an extension of that strategy, Frankel said.

The BBC felt it had the latitude to transition the bot to focus on the election because the audience that found the bot through the BBC Politics page is likely interested in this type of coverage and also because Brexit is also at the heart of the election.

“This is an opportunity for us because it’s a BBC Politics bot. Okay, it’s been focused on Brexit, but there’s no reason why we can’t pivot it toward the election campaign,” Frankel said. “What we plan to do…is to move some of the content toward the election. You’ll see a combination of latest analysis and latest information on the snap election. In due course, hopefully the manifesto details for the various parties as well as some of their policy details and so forth alongside the Brexit content that we had before. So for the duration of this election campaign, this politics bot will be a combination of the election campaign and Brexit. Then, subsequent to the election, once the dust has settled and we have a new administration, the bot will return to its daily business of updating people on Brexit negotiations.”

That daily business includes breaking news alerts, analysis and opinion, explainers, a quiz, and other story formats.

The quiz, for instance, offers users true or false questions about the European Union, such as whether the EU regulates the size of coffins (false) and whether the EU forbids kids under the age of 8 from blowing up balloons (also false). Users can get more details about each of the topics discussed, and each answer includes a GIF of British politicians, like the eminently GIFable Boris Johnson.

The explainers, meanwhile, are written in a choose-your-own-adventure format with preselected questions that let users dig deeper into how Brexit will impact the economy, education, health, and immigration.

Frankel said it was a challenge to find the appropriate tone for stories on the bot. “You want it to encourage people to see it as a friend helping you navigate your way through a complex subject rather than something that is just telling you lots of information,” he said.

“We had to take an existing story and think about how it could be broken down into component parts that would work as a series of messages with responses,” Frankel said. “You have to take a 500-word news article and think: If I was to see this in the form of a series of message alerts, what would I want to see and what would I leave out? That’s a different way of thinking about journalism.”

Frankel said that the BBC plans to adapt some of these features for the election coverage. It plans to add in information about the parties’ platforms once they’re released. Also, in previous general elections, the BBC has had a feature where users on its website can get localized information based on their postcode and it hopes to add that type of functionality to the bot.

“It’s a big CMS and we have to try and figure out how much of it we can connect quickly enough,” Frankel said. “At the very least, we’ll be able to pull in a certain number of pages that we can pre-populate with some of this data. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do enough that will allow people to see their constituency. Ultimately, what we’d like to be able to do is to be able to enable anyone to go into it to put in a postcode or put in the name of their constituency and they would be directed to a page that has background on the candidates, the issues in their area, and on the results night or the day after be able to show them their result.”

Though it’s still fairly early days for Messenger bots, Grant Heinrich, The Bot Platform’s head of audiences, said he expects news organizations to continue to use them to try and reach new readers — especially as people spend increasing amount of times in messaging apps.

News organizations also, he said, might be willing to try out short-term, story-focused bots like the BBC’s election project because Facebook Messenger gives outlets a relatively flexible platform to work with.

“Facebook gives you a language of carousels, buttons, subjects, video, and audio,” Heinrich said. “There’s not a huge range of different things you can do, but you can assemble all sorts of information in those…using a lot of the same bits and pieces.”

Photo of Prime Minister Theresa May signing her letter of notification to the President of the European Council setting out the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the European Union by Jay Allen/Number 10 used under a Creative Commons License.

POSTED     May 8, 2017, 4:19 p.m.
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