Learn from the BBC how to use a bot to break down complex topics on social media
A chatbot might not sound like the ideal solution to educate yourself on climate change. But spend some time on Facebook Messenger and you might just change your mind. The new climate bot, the brainchild of BBC News Labs, is meant to fill you in on the basics of climate change without lecturing you, as it answers your questions with snippets of scientific background over six chats.
This friendly bot that has been interacting with thousands of people on Facebook since April is among the BBC’s solutions to engage with audiences outside its website, some of whom may rely merely on social media to keep up with the news.
The chatbot turns what can be very technical explanations of climate change into an easier-to-follow conversation, helped along by photo quizzes and scientific trivia. The knowledge and advice on offer range from unsettling data about mass extinction to practical guidance on incorporating sustainable solutions in your day-to-day life. And while the messaging has a light-hearted surface, including emojis and cute pictures of polar bears and sea lions, that’s underpinned by a tight editorial structure that’s always encouraging the user to complete their bot conversation.
Ahead of the News Impact Summit on climate change, BBC News journalist Dulcie Lee told us about her first time writing for a bot and the cross-team work behind this project.
How did you come up with the idea of building a climate bot?
I was part of a pilot team looking at new ways to reach our audience with climate change journalism. Conversational journalism is something the BBC is working really hard on — and climate change is a perfect topic for that.
We know our audiences care about climate change — and they have a huge range of opinions, ideas, and questions — so we wanted to find a way to have a two-way interaction about the topic which was useful for both them and us.
That way, on top of the bread-and-butter journalism, we could listen to them, find out what they knew, thought, and felt about climate change and the BBC’s reporting of it — and from that make reactive decisions about how to shape our coverage. And since the BBC has already used bots for other topics like Brexit, we decided to try a similar format for climate change.
The BBC has built up expertise with creating and using chatbots. How useful is this tool to target new audiences?
I have to credit my brilliant colleague Grant Heinrich from BBC News Labs with that expertise. He’s been doing fantastic work around how we can create a two-way conversation with audiences — chatbots are one tool in that toolbox.
We want to find ways of bringing in audiences who wouldn’t naturally turn to the BBC. A huge chunk of our online audience comes through the front door — our website. And they tend to be more regular readers. The chatbot allowed us to reach audiences who got their news from other platforms. So with Facebook seeming to have the best balance of a huge mainstream audience and also being relatively easy to work with technically, we hosted our chatbot on its Messenger platform.
Can you tell us a little more about the process of writing the text for the climate bot and using it in practice?
Firstly, I hadn’t written a bot before this. I worked with Grant and my fantastic editor Anna Doble from BBC World Service to plan the topics for each week in consultation with correspondents from the Science & Environment team.
Editorially, you want to offer your audience a tailored journey based on how they respond to the bot — but you still want everyone to get the same core facts. That’s quite a challenge, especially when you have so few words to play with. (We quickly developed a strong emoji game.)
In terms of actually writing the bit of the bot that makes it talk, send photos etc, there was a bit to get to grips with. I have a mathsy background so I found it quite intuitive, but the software we used was similar to writing very basic code. Anyone who has used a remotely fiddly content management system could pick it up!
What were the topics you discussed with audiences? And which one was the most popular?
We kicked off discussing temperatures — referencing the IPCC’s report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5C vs 2C. We then discussed what individuals could do to combat climate change, and then we talked about what governments are doing, before going to the fringes of current understanding to discuss cutting-edge tech and radical science.
One of the most popular questions we had was “Are we doomed?” — which (depressingly) revealed the sense of paralysis a lot of us feel in the face of a torrent of negative news.
But the most popular topic was definitely “What can I do?” I thought that really emphasised the opportunity we have to empower our audience to reduce their own impacts and inspire positive change. It also showed how hungry people are to discuss what the news is telling them — and not just be “reported at”.
Was there a result that was particularly surprising?
More than half of the chatbot subscribers asked the bot a question and real ones that made sense and weren’t, you know, abusive or obscene. We had loads of super-intelligent questions pouring in which was amazing if a little overwhelming!
It’s not easy for big media companies to listen to their audiences at scale, and have people talk about such a specific topic. Those questions were also really valuable in shaping the editorial direction of the subsequent chats, and have also informed other journalism we’ve pursued since.
What advice would you give to other news outlets reporting on climate change?
For our audiences, the topic of climate change isn’t a hard sell. That’s amazing for something that is so complex, scientific, political, and global. Seek out ways to contextualise, explain, and empower your readers through knowledge and understanding, in accessible ways — the appetite is there.
If you wish to learn more on when and how to use a bot to interact with your audience, register here for free and join Dulcie Lee’s breakout session at the News Impact Summit, on 7 October, in Birmingham. There will be other talks and presentations on science and environmental journalism with experts from The Guardian, BBC News, Carbon Brief and Climate Home, Quartz, the Lookout Station and scientist & YouTuber Adam Levy.
Thanks to Milou Dirkx for contributing to this article.