Andrea Insunza and Francisca Skoknic with Paula Molina (not pictured) founded LaBot.
women behind labot

INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM

My new friend is a news bot from Chile called LaBot

If news talks more like your friends, it will be harder to ignore.

That is the rationale behind LaBot, a digital chat tool created by Chilean journalists that breaks news into conversation-sized bits and pumps it out to subscribers on Facebook Messenger and Telegram.

The tool, which debuted in 2017, seeks to engage readers by asking questions or for feedback. Those responses trigger additional chats from LaBot.

In a recent article about a proposal to shorten Chile’s work week from 45 to 40 hours, for example, LaBot asked readers to guess how the work week compares to other countries. Readers could choose one of two options —  “longer” or “shorter.”

I chose “shorter.” Here’s what LaBot told me:

(Translation: In Latin America, Chile has a shorter work week than several countries, according to data from the International Labour Organization. LaBot then showed which countries have longer work weeks than Chile, and which ones have shorter.)

In other cases, readers are invited to respond with an emoji, such as a thumbs up or a thumbs down, to indicate whether they’d like LaBot to send a link to a particular document or website.

The idea is to turn a news story into something more akin to a conversation, using the same language a friend might use, including GIFs and emojis, said Francisca Skoknic, director of the journalism school at Diego Portales University in Santiago and one of LaBot’s three co-founders.

“We realized that there was a demand for company, for conversing about the news,” she said.

LaBot can also be silly.

In a story from September about water scarcity, LaBot used a GIF of a man dancing with water hoses to illustrate a message about 44 countries using more than 40 percent of their available water supply every year.

“We try to make sure the robot always has a sense of humor,” said Andrea Insunza, director of the Research and Publishing Center at Diego Portales University, another co-founder.

The third founder is a journalist named Paula Molina.

LaBot — both the name of the tool and the news organization that deploys it — made its debut ahead of Chile’s national elections. The country had just begun requiring candidates to fill out asset declaration forms. One of LaBot’s first news stories delved into the presidential candidates’ properties and sources of income.

Once the elections were over, LaBot covered other news, including a new school admissions system, a police-involved killing in southern Chile and fires in the Amazon rainforest.

The chatbot quickly amassed 10,000 followers and was profiled by traditional media outlets.  Some outlets even cited LaBot as a source in news articles. Last year, LaBot was one of dozens of news organizations that partnered with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists on the Implant Files, a global investigation into the medical device industry.

“Above all for us it’s important that people are informed about topics on which they’re going to have to make decisions,” Insunza said.

One advantage of engaging with readers on messaging apps is that LaBot’s stories are delivered using the same channels that often serve as megaphones for fake news.

“When we talk about the problem of fake news it’s partly because it’s disseminated on these chat networks in which people talk to people they trust,” Skoknic said.

If your aunt sends you a fake news story, you might be more likely to believe it, Skoknic said. “We decided to use the emotional reaction people have [to messaging apps] and use it for good.”

LaBot was first launched on a chatbot platform called Politibot, which was created by Spanish journalists and served as one of the inspirations for the Chilean project. The team behind LaBot — which includes three journalists and two engineers — later developed their own platform with a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation. Their goal is to fund LaBot’s journalism by renting the software to other organizations. Last year, LaBot signed its first rental agreement with an NGO that works with victims of online harassment.

Skoknic said the LaBot team sees chatbots as a complement to traditional media outlets, not a replacement for them. Ultimately, she added, LaBot’s goal is to “create information habits.” And what better way to create a habit than using someone’s phone?

In my case, LaBot has already won me over with her sense of humor. I’m already looking forward to our next chat.