Amanda Hickman was living in New York City in 2004 when the Republican National Convention got ugly.
While George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were being nominated in Madison Square Garden, police were surrounding protestors in nearby Union Square with orange netting and arresting them in droves. The clashes didn’t end there.
“There were horses charging down the street, it was very unnerving for some people,” said Hickman, who now runs BuzzFeed’s Open Lab for Journalism, Technology and the Arts. “In some cases there were reporters there to see it, and in some cases there weren’t.”
It was a case study in the difficulty of covering national political conventions, hurry-up-and-wait affairs that feature a tricky combination of canned speeches and bouts of breaking news at nearby protests. Even in an epicenter of media scrutiny, it’s impossible for news organizations to have someone at every street corner.
That’s why, when the Republican National Convention kicks off in Cleveland Monday, BuzzFeed will have a reporter in everyone’s pocket.
On Sunday, BuzzFeed launched BuzzBot, an automated chatbot for Facebook’s Messenger app. The bot, developed by BuzzFeed’s Open Lab (an R&D skunkworks based in San Francisco), is capable of having a limited back-and-forth with users to gather news about the convention throughout the week.
It works like this: Users can open up the Facebook Messenger app and search for BuzzFeed News (or follow this link) to open up the dialogue. Then, BuzzBot will begin asking users a series of multiple-choice questions related to the convention: Are they following the news? If they live in Cleveland, are they attending, protesting or living there?
The bot has a series of answers for each response. If users just happen to live in Cleveland, BuzzBot asks them for an emoji that best captures their feelings about the convention.
But if users are attending the convention, or protesting it, the bot asks them to send photos or video of what’s happening around them.
Back in the newsroom, BuzzFeed will have a team dedicated to BuzzBot, communicating with reporters on the ground and people sending messages to create a feedback loop.
BuzzBot has been in the works since early May, a few weeks after Facebook announced it was opening up its messaging app to programmers at its annual developer conference.
The team at BuzzFeed’s Open Lab knew they wanted to develop something for the convention, but they weren’t sure what.
Ultimately, Hickman and her colleagues realized a chatbot could be used to solve the problem she encountered more than a decade ago in New York: a huge event and a limited number of boots on the ground. Although BuzzFeed will have 19 journalists covering the convention, they can’t be everywhere at once.
“Getting those stories from everywhere — whether they’re from people who are at a protest or people who are on the convention floor, it’s something that nobody can do,” Hickman said. “So we started testing out ways that we could use a bot to invite people to participate in some of that coverage.”
Hickman and her team waited longer than many of BuzzFeed’s competitors to launch a bot. Lots of news organizations have made forays into the technology, but the early track record has been uneven. Although more than 11,000 bots have been launched on Facebook Messenger, initial efforts have seen a few bugs: slow response times, lots of notifications and an overall lack of comprehension.
A new bot from The Washington Post, for example, had trouble interpreting a reporter’s request for news about Pokemon Go, instead serving up an article about Evan Bayh’s run for Indiana Senate. Some users have complained that CNN’s bot hasn’t fully understood their requests.
Unlike those examples, however, BuzzBot will be used primarily for gathering news rather than promoting it. It’s in the vanguard of bot reporting, which BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith considers an interesting category that might free up journalists to do other stuff. If the bot is a success, that might mean dispatching writers to conduct interviews with politicians rather than making them wait on the sidewalk for passers-by.
“Man on the street reporting is a notoriously time-consuming and unreliable form of journalism that has been practiced traditionally for many years,” Smith told Poynter. “And I think you can potentially use this to get a little more scale and get the texture of the event — getting reactions in the way that reporters always do.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that BuzzBot is going to make old-fashioned political reporting a thing of the past.
User-generated content isn’t a new concept, (CNN’s iReport launched in 2006) and the rise of social media has spawned a legion of crowdsourced correspondents.
Neither of these developments made flesh-and-blood reporters obsolete. At minimum, there’s the matter of verifying information from non-reporters, a process that requires a critical eye and often additional reporting. The bot isn’t capable of applying news judgment to a particular photo, video or statement.
And there’s context that must be applied by reporters and editors who understand politics. BuzzBot is in some ways an improvement over traditional crowdsourcing because it allows BuzzFeed to be more nuanced (private messages to individuals as opposed to public tweets), but there’s still no substitute for boots on the ground.
“We see the bot as an addition to our reporting,” Smith said. “We’re not trying to replace reporters with robots here. But I think it allows us to talk to a lot of people at the same time.”
While BuzzFeed’s Open Lab doesn’t have any other chatbots in the works currently, the company isn’t ruling out experimenting with bots on other platforms, such as SMS and Alexa, according to a spokesperson. In the meantime, editors will be using BuzzBot to help cover the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.