October 15, 2018

Social media bots, once a laughing matter, are now anything but.

A carpet bombing of messages from accounts claiming to be everyday people like you and me may have shifted favors in narrow political decisions, changing the course of the world. Do Americans know or care?


A new Pew study found that about two-thirds of Americans are aware of social media bots (and while 16 percent say they know “a lot” about them, a full 34 percent say they don’t know anything about bots at all). Of those, 80 percent believe they’re used for malicious purposes.

Also of note: About 81 percent of those who have heard of bots believe that a good chunk of the news they see on social media comes from a bot.

That presents a good opportunity for your social media team to remind people that there are actual humans behind your organization’s social accounts. If you’re one of the lucky ducks who uses one of the several great automated tools to post to social — such as Echobox, TrueAnthem or SocialFlow — it’s a good idea to be transparent about your use. And to use the time they save to do some meaningful engagement.

BAD NEWS: It doesn’t take a bot to make a malicious social media account. The New York Times reported today that members of Myanmar’s military posed as citizens to foment hatred toward the country’s Muslim population. The campaign lasted as long as five years in a country where Facebook is near ubiquitous.

VISUALIZE THIS: Pinellas County, Florida, where Poynter is housed, has higher rates of uninsured individuals, food insecurity and mental health distress than other similar cities across the nation. How does your county stack up? This information is charted on a new health comparison tool from the American Communities Project, a social science and journalism effort based at George Washington University. The project organizes similar towns and cities not by size or other commonly used factors, but by community types that recognize subtleties and complexities — for example, Graying America, Military Posts and College Towns.

SICK DATA: It’s that time of year again. The leaves are falling (though not in Florida), the air’s getting crisp (also not in Florida) and people are coming down with the flu (unfortunately, we do have that one). This year’s flu season is predicted to be milder than last year, but it has already killed at least one child and doctors are urging patients to get vaccinated. If you’re writing about it, consider providing a public service by linking to or embedding the U.S. Center for Disease Control’s vaccine finder. The useful little widget maps nearby locations that offer the flu vaccine.

READ IT: I hear a lot of the same questions about journalism and technology. “Is everyone’s CMS bad?” “How do I use a hashtag?” “How do I use Reddit?” Yes. Don’t. Ask someone else, specifically folks like The Texas Tribune’s Bobby Blanchard, The Dallas Morning News’ Dominick DiFurio and The Washington Post’s Gene Park. The trio will lead a 30-minute conversation Wed., Oct. 17, about Reddit for journalists. To participate, you have to be a member of Gather, a group for community-minded journalists and audience engagement folks (and possibly the most helpful journalism group on the internet). Request an invite here.

STEAL THIS IDEA: An app called “Couch Potato” has been on my list of tools to try for weeks. It seemed like it would be like other tools I’ve recommended, such as Moment, which provides analytics about phone use; or Forest, which encourages users to unplug. It does keep track of daily inactivity, right down to the second, but it’s also not-so-secretly a marketing tool: Couch Potato was developed for Burrow, a luxury couch manufacturer that follows the modern mattress model by shipping sofas to people’s homes. The app rewards inactivity with coupons, with the idea that you’ll want a nice couch if you spend a lot of time being inactive.

  • So how could journalism apps follow a similar model? Perhaps users who read the news while in motion could be shown more personalized news about commuting. Maybe those who work in high-rises, detected through a phone’s GPS elevation, could be asked to provide user-generated cityscape photos. Modern phones can give appmakers a lot more information than just geolocation data, and the possibilities for news are endless.

WRITE SPELLING: Good news for journalists who misspell things with frequency (coincidentally, I just typed “journalists” as “jouranlists” and “misspell” as mispell”): Grammarly is now available for Google Docs. The popular browser plugin and app corrects complex spelling and grammar mistakes that Google’s built-in spelling tool would otherwise miss.

The following is another tool from a friend of the newsletter, Dr. Burkhard Luber, a lecturer in international politics and international crisis areas based in Germany. Got an item you’d like to submit? Email me.

IT’S THE TONE STUPID: The BBC has a wonderful sound archive. You can download 16,000+ different sounds from that source without charge. Wanting to beef up your text with sounds? Help is here — whether it is a roaring stadium after a soccer goal, the impressive noise of a busy Bangkok marketplace or the soft rolling of waves at the coast. Text-only production can be dull, but with this source you have no excuse to present it with some aural ambiance.

Try This! is supported by the American Press Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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Ren LaForme is the Managing Editor of Poynter.org. He was previously Poynter's digital tools reporter, chronicling tools and technology for journalists, and a producer for…
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