June 28, 2017

Ah, bots: data journalists’ favorite pastime and regular journalists’ favorite distraction. And this article is no exception.

Over the past few years, the number of automated bots on social media and messaging platforms has skyrocketed. These days, it feels like everyone with a pulse and a password has retweeted their favorites or cobbled together Github repository of their creations.

There are bots that tell the newsroom when the coffee is done, burn copies of President Donald Trump’s tweets and randomly add subtitles to pictures from a buoy in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

From the useful and insightful, to the funny and downright weird, here are seven of Poynter’s favorite Twitter bots in the media world.

1. Quakebot

It may have inaccurately reported an earthquake that occurred in 1925 last week, but this bot is still groundbreaking.

Former Los Angeles Times journalist and programmer Ken Schwencke created it about five years ago to solve a problem in the newsroom: wasting time on reporting every single earthquake that occurs in California.

The bot automatically takes data from the United States Geological Survey and, if a quake report is above a certain size, writes a basic breaking news story, publishes and tweets it. Then it’s up to the editorial staff whether or not to follow up, freeing up precious time in a newsroom that has shrunk considerably in the past few years.

Here’s an example of a recent Quakebot report.

2. Real Press Sec.

Who doesn’t love @RealPressSecBot? This bot made the rounds on media Twitter earlier this month amid a debate of whether or not Donald Trump’s tweets constitute official White House statements.

Each time the president tweets, it automatically copies and pastes the content onto an image of White House letterhead and tweets it out. Although the bot was inspired by a former Obama staffer and created by an educator, journalists go crazy for it.

3. Editing TheGrayLady

Serving Twitter users a healthy dose of transparency, @Nyt_diff is a bot that shows how The New York Times homepage changes throughout the day. The bot, which was created by @J_e_d and inspired by @Newsdiffs, automatically detects when an edit is made to text on the page, captures that text and highlights the additions and subtractions.

While a lot of these changes are the result of simple copy edits, some of them are pretty dramatic and newsworthy. Take the one below, for example.

4. Snippet_jpg

Have you ever wondered what was in the news 100 years ago? Well look no further than the @Snippet_jpg bot, which automatically pulls and publishes portions of newspaper front pages from a century ago on any specific day.

The bot was created by @hugovk and pulls from the Chronicling America archives in the Library of Congress. It only has 99 followers on Twitter, so show it some love.

5. Not Yorker

This bot is definitely not The New Yorker — in fact, it’s in the name. However, it does take New Yorker cartoons and impose bot-generated captions on them for no other reason than to make people laugh.

Not Yorker was created by Shaun McAvinney and has only 55 followers despite having more than 1,200 tweets. At least the bot’s Twitter bio contains a YouTube link to that Seinfeld episode where Elaine Benes takes a cartoon to The New Yorker in an attempt to understand what it means. Same, Elaine.

6. Congress-edits

Perhaps the most interesting, albeit unsurprising, bot on this list is @Congress-edits, which automatically tweets anonymous Wikipedia edits that are made from IP addresses within the U.S Congress. Most of the tweets are fairly obvious, such as changes to senators’ and representatives’ pages. But some are pretty amusing, like the one above about presidents with facial hair, or the overly meta one below. The bot has more than 43,000 followers and the code is accessible on Github.

7. NYT Anonymous

Another chronicler of the newspaper of record, @NYTanon, automatically posts anytime The Times uses an anonymous source in a story. The bot, which was created by John Emerson and has nearly 3,000 followers, shows how much the newspaper relies on anonymity in its storytelling.

According to its Twitter bio, the bot works by pulling from The Times’ article search API.

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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