BBC launches ‘Corona Bot’ to tackle COVID-19 confusion

The BBC ‘s new online tool aims to keep people updated about changes to the UK's coronavirus restrictions.

COVID-19 conornavirus caution-tape barriers.
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The BBC has launched a new “Corona Bot” service to provide the general public with a more accessible way to get answers to their coronavirus-related questions.

With the UK government announcing a host of lockdown-easing measurements this week, from the re-opening of schools for some year groups on June 1 to non-essential shops being allowed to open again June 15, questions have arisen about how these changes affect them and their families.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic earlier this year, the BBC has been providing a range of services to the British public via its TV, radio and online platforms. It has now moved to take these services further with the AI-powered Corona Bot.

Currently, the tool is available through Messenger for Facebook and the BBC Facebook page, where users can type questions to BBC News; it will answer them using information from BBC News and, where appropriate, the NHS website for England.

The corporation plans to roll out the tool on other BBC digital platforms and open up the service to other voice assistants, including Amazon Alexa and Google Home.

Anthony Mullen, senior research director at Gartner, said that collaboration is needed between experts, publishers, distributors and consumers to make sure correct information is distributed. Otherwise, bad actors and bad narratives can prosper.

“We saw this with elections and most recently we have seen it with coronavirus where bad and dangerous advice has been widely spread by consumers who mean no malice,” he said.

Throughout the pandemic, news outlets and social media platforms have worked to minimize the spread of disinformation. Twitter has started adding warning labels to tweets that it believes may be misleading and removing tweets that run the risk of spreading dangerous misinformation about COVID-19. Facebook has taken similar steps, showing a notification to users who have interacted with posts that contain “harmful” misinformation.

Mullen said that AI and natural language technologies – using a mixture of semantic and machine-learning approaches – can begin to marry questions on consumer platforms to answers from trusted medical sources.

“We can begin to check and compare semantic distance statements made by friends, uncles, strangers and presidents on Facebook and Twitter to how they align with expert advice,” he said.

BBC News also has its own fact checking service, BBC Reality Check, which claims “to cut through the spin and concentrate on the facts.” With a majority of the British public still seeing the BBC as a reliable news source, Mukul Devichand, executive editor of BBC Voice and AI, believes the new tool can deliver clear and correct information.

“People really want their specific questions about Coronavirus answered, from ‘when will shops open’ to ‘what is the R number,’ but searching the internet often makes them more confused,” Devichand said in a statement about the launch of the new bot.

“With the situation becoming even more complicated as lockdown rules change, we have developed a Messenger tool to answer COVID-19 questions directly from trustworthy BBC reporting.  We’re also including publicly-available material from the NHS where we think appropriate, so the UK public can turn to a single place for answers,” he said.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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