Tech Combats Online Harassment: Algorithm Detects Bullying

Along with social media’s many positive attributes, there are also some unfortunate negatives, including potential addiction, lifestyle envy and Justin Bieber. Perhaps the nastiest phenomenon is online bullying, which has been blamed for a number of suicides and a great deal of adolescent misery in general.
To combat this antisocial plague, researchers with the MIT Media Lab’s Software Agents Group have developed an algorithm that can detect bullying based on linguistic patterns. According to designer Karthik Dinakar, who was interviewed by Boston’s WGBH News, the program is designed to work in conjunction with social-media sites as a kind of preventive measure. It scans the text of posts and -- when it detects language that may indicate bullying -- asking the user “Do you really want to say this?”
The anti-bullying app is already in use at MTV’s social site for teens, A Thin Line, which has taken up the cause with its “Draw Your Line” campaign against “digital abuse.” Dinakar also suggested that parents can download the app on to their kids’ smartphones. Personally, I think some online commenters could probably benefit from it, too.
While it’s unlikely to eliminate the scourge altogether, an app that reminds users of basic rules of civility, appealing to their better natures with a gentle “nudge” in the right direction, might well reduce the amount and severity of online bullying. And that could be a saving grace — literally — for some unhappy victim. If it spares just one kid some totally unnecessary and gratuitous misery, I say it’s worth it.
If a polite preventive intervention doesn’t help, there’s always the possibility of criminal prosecution. Last year, two girls in Lakeland, Florida, ages 12 and 14, were arrested and charged as juveniles with third-degree aggravated stalking following the death of another girl, 14-year-old Rebecca Sedwick, who committed suicide after they bullied her online and in person. Although the charges were later dropped, the case suggested that public prosecutors and law enforcement may be taking a harder line against online bullying.
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