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University of Michigan School of Information


Bots put the brakes on bad online behavior

Monday, 07/16/2018

If two people in a bar start arguing, slinging insults and threats, chances are someone will intervene to calm tempers. But when vicious words fly back and forth on social media, such intervention is absent.

That may soon change.

Libby Hemphill, UMSI associate professor of information, has received a 2018 Mozilla Research Grant for her study “Learning and Automating De-escalation Strategies in Online Discussions.”

The goal of the study is to employ machine learning to reduce hostility on social media. Hemphill will be building upon an existing hostility detection and prediction model she helped to develop.

For that model, Instagram data was used to train a Python model to detect comments that contain harassing, threatening or offensive language directed toward a specific individual or group. It then predicted how many hostile comments would follow, according to Hemphill. 

For the Mozilla work, “we’re focusing specifically on conflict and insults,” Hemphill says. “We plan to use bots to post de-escalating comments to see if we’re able to automatically diffuse a situation so that productive conversation can continue.” 

The bots will be deployed on Reddit, Hemphill adds. “We are using conflict de-escalation tactics from the general literature to build our bot behaviors, but we’re also trying to learn from the discussions on Reddit about what already works there so that our bots can be successful in context.” 

Hemphill will be working with David Jurgens, UMSI assistant professor of information, along with MSI student Stella Choi, and Akshita Jha, a student at the International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad, India.

The Mozilla announcement of this year’s grant recipients noted that just eight proposals were selected from more than 115 applicants, and that “these projects support Mozilla’s mission to make the Internet safer, more empowering, and more accessible.

“The Mozilla Research Grants program is part of Mozilla’s Emerging Technologies commitment to being a world-class example of inclusive innovation and impact culture and reflects Mozilla’s commitment to open innovation, continuously exploring new possibilities with and for diverse communities,” the announcement states.

As Hemphill notes about her study’s potential effect, “I believe social media has the potential to help us build a more just society, but not if conflict and harassment make equitable participation impossible. Encouraging positive interactions is key, and I hope that automating de-escalation can help.

Libby Hemphill is also Research Associate Professor, Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, Institute for Social Research at UMSI. David Jurgens is also Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, College of Engineering.


Sheryl James, UMSI PR Specialist