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In London, an argument over apartments, 1969. Photo: William Lovelace/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty

Among efforts to make social media a more congenial place, researchers at Cornell are working on artificial intelligence that detects nasty online conversations when they are only starting to take that turn.

What's going on: Most studies of online conversation look for phrases such as, "What the hell is wrong with you.” But, by then, it's too late. In their new paper, Justine Zhang, Jonathan Chang and Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil say they aim to ferret out anti-social clues "when the conversation is still salvageable."

How they did it: The Cornell team studied some 1,200 conversations on Wikipedia Talk pages, reports MIT Tech Review, in a collaboration with researchers from Jigsaw and Wikimedia.

Among their findings:

  • Cues of civil conversations include greetings and gratitude as well as opinions that are hedged.
  • Conversations going bad feature sentences starting with the word "you," which signals potential trouble.

That won't surprise many of us: The researchers found that humans are still better at this than AI — a control group of humans detected a bad conversation in advance 72% of the time, compared with 61.6% for the AI.

  • Yet if all humans were terrific at heading off online battles, we would not be in some of the mess we currently confront. In other words, early detection would be a good thing.

One bit of good news: In some of the conversations their AI had flagged, the humans eventually self-corrected.

  • The paper concludes, "Interactions which initially seem prone to attacks can nonetheless maintain civility, by way of level-headed interlocutors, as well as explicit acts of reparation."

Go deeper

Updated 1 hour ago - World

Myanmar's deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi sentenced to 4 years in prison

An anti-coup protest in Yangon, Myanmar.Photo: Hkun Lat/Getty Images

A Myanmar court sentenced the country's ousted leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, on Monday to four years in prison on charges of "inciting public unrest" and breaking COVID-19 protocols, per the New York Times.

Why it matters: It's the first of several verdicts that could result in the 76-year-old Nobel laureate being imprisoned for the rest of her life.

3 hours ago - World

Pope Francis denounces European governments' migrant response

Pope Francis adresses refugees at the Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos on Sunday. Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Pope Francis criticized European countries' response to migrants and asylum seekers during his visit to a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos Sunday.

Why it matters: The pope said "migration is a humanitarian crisis that concerns everyone," but little had changed in the global response to displaced peoples since his first visit to Lesbos five years ago, per a transcript of his remarks. "Human lives, real people, are at stake. ... let us stop this shipwreck of civilization!"

Chris Cuomo accuser: On-air "hypocrisy" spurred report

Journalist Chris Cuomo. Photo: Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images

A woman who accused fired CNN journalist Chris Cuomo of sexual misconduct said Sunday she decided to come forward after learning of his comments about women who made similar accusations about his brother. He denies her allegations.

Why it matters: Her attorney Debra Katz said in a statement that she heard "the hypocrisy" of his on-air words about his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and was "disgusted by his efforts to try to discredit these women," so "retained counsel to report his serious sexual misconduct against her to CNN."