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Illustration: Aïda Amer & Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Scientists have long tried to use AI to automatically detect hate speech, which is a huge problem for social network users. And they're getting better at it, despite the difficulty of the task.

What's new: A project from UC Santa Barbara and Intel takes a big step further — it proposes a way to automate responses to online vitriol.

  • The researchers cite a widely held belief that counterspeech is a better antidote to hate than censorship.
  • Their ultimate vision is a bot that steps in when someone has crossed the line, reining them in and potentially sparing the target.

The big picture: Automated text generation is a buzzy frontier of the science of speech and language. In recent years, huge advances have elevated these programs from error-prone autocomplete tools to super-convincing — though sometimes still transparently robotic — authors.

How it works: To build a good hate speech detector, you need some actual hate speech. So the researchers turned to Reddit and Gab, two social networks with little to no policing and a reputation for rancor.

  • For maximum bile, they went straight for the "whiniest most low-key toxic subreddits," as curated by Vice. They grabbed about 5,000 conversations from those forums, plus 12,000 from Gab.
  • They passed the threads to workers on Amazon Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing platform, who were asked to identify hate speech in the conversations and write short interventions to defuse the hateful messages.
  • The researchers trained several kinds of AI text generators on these conversations and responses, priming them to write responses to toxic comments.

The results: Some of the computer-generated responses could easily pass as human written — like, "Use of the c-word is unacceptable in our discourse as it demeans and insults women" or "Please do not use derogatory language for intellectual disabilities."

  • But the replies were inconsistent, and some were incomprehensible: "If you don't agree with you, there's no need to resort to name calling."
  • When Mechanical Turk workers were asked to evaluate the output, they preferred human-written responses more than two-thirds of time.

Our take: This project didn't test how effective the responses were in stemming hate speech — just how successful other people thought it might be.

  • Even the most rational, empathetic response, not to mention the somewhat robotic computer-generated ones above, could flop or even backfire — especially if Reddit trolls knew they were being policed by bots.

"We believe that bots will need to declare their identities to humans at the beginning," says William Wang, a UCSB computer scientist and paper co-author. "However, there is more research needed how exactly the intervention will happen in human-computer interaction."

Go deeper

Updated 56 mins ago - World

Mexican President López Obrador tests positive for coronavirus

Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador during a press conference at National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico, on Wednesday. Photo: Ismael Rosas/Eyepix Group/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced Sunday evening that he's tested positive for COVID-19.

Driving the news: López Obrador tweeted that he has mild symptoms and is receiving medical treatment. "As always, I am optimistic," he added. "We will all move forward."

Sarah Huckabee Sanders to run for governor of Arkansas

Sarah Huckabee Sanders at FOX News' studios in New York City in 2019. Photo: Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

Former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders will announce Monday that she's running for governor of Arkansas.

The big picture: Sanders was touted as a contender after it was announced she was leaving the Trump administration in June 2019. Then-President Trump tweeted he hoped she would run for governor, adding "she would be fantastic." Sanders is "seen as leader in the polls" in the Republican state, notes the Washington Post's Josh Dawsey, who first reported the news.

Coronavirus has inflamed global inequality

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

History will likely remember the pandemic as the "first time since records began that inequality rose in virtually every country on earth at the same time." That's the verdict from Oxfam's inequality report covering the year 2020 — a terrible year that hit the poorest, hardest across the planet.

Why it matters: The world's poorest were already in a race against time, facing down an existential risk in the form of global climate change. The coronavirus pandemic could set global poverty reduction back as much as a full decade, according to the World Bank.