Computers can detect bullying on social networking sites

News Analysis

Computers can detect bullying on social networking sites

Bill Goodwin

Computers may soon be able to police online chat rooms and social networking sites for signs of bullying, flaming and negative comments.

Work by a consortium of European universities and research organisations aims to develop software capable of taking the emotional temperature of online postings in Myspace and other internet communities.

The same technology could be used for improving the way computer systems respond to human queries, allowing them to respond differently according to whether users are frustrated or happy.

Taking online emotional temperatures

Professor Mike Thelwall, professor of information science at the university of Wolverhampton, is spearheading the UK's contribution to the project.

The university has developed software capable of taking the emotional temperature of postings on social networking sites. The group is using sample data from Myspace, but the principles could be applied to any site.

"The challenging thing has been tailoring something that ought to work in theory for the way it works in Myspace." he says. "For example, in normal text you could look for the word "happy", but in Myspace it might be happy with seven a's. We have to recognise that happy with seven a's means happy and that it is more positive than happy with one a."

After three months' development work, the software is able to assess the emotional content of postings with an accuracy of 60% - as good as a human reader.

 Social networking: positive, neutral and negative ways of expressing emotions    
 Positive  Neutral Negative 

Omy i looove the song i love maximo park

HELLLLLLOOOOOOOOO!! xxxxx

look at ur bad son lol =]

imma get at u l8r k? luv ya

whats up? hows your holiday going?

Taz told me

yo man wutup

nothin... just bored...

why am i not your top friend asswipe!?

U cAn HaTe AlL u WaNT iT AiNt ME

Sorry if i made u mad m8

"We were surprised by the sheer volume of positive emotion in Myspace and how little negative emotion there was. Especially among male users, insulting your friends is something you do, but that does not seem to go on in Myspace," Thelwall says.

Improving the future of social networking

The four-year project aims to analyse and understand the emotional dynamics of people interacting online. The work could help to improve the design of social networking sites in the future.

"We have simulation experts that will simulate how emotions flow around the system. If one person is very positive, how will that flow around the system? If one person is very negative, what impact will that have? It might be that some negative comments are necessary to keep a system alive, as negative comments can generate debate," he says.

Ultimately, the work may lead to software that can take the emotional temperature of comments on social networking sites in real time. One problem is that a comment made as a joke online could be taken the wrong way by others. Offenders could either be sent an automatic warning or be referred to a moderator, says Thelwall.

"Expressing a negative emotion in a chat room can have serious consequences because so many young people are online," he says. "Hopefully the software will detect if someone is being bullied or flamed."

Part of the work will be to assess the impact that emotional statements have on individuals using online services. For example, researchers plan to use electrodes to measure volunteers' responses to positive and negative comments in chat rooms.

"We are going to try to extend our methods to work with lots of other types of internet discussions," he says.


Full list of collaborators:


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