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Sentiment-sensing software could aid in weeding hostile online comments

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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social network,Yahoo,search,sentimentIf the adage "if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all" were applied to the Web, most comment threads would be empty. Some comments posted in response to a news article, blog, video or other online content successfully advance a debate and/or challenge assertions made by reporters, bloggers and editors. Many comments, however, come across as primarily hostile or entirely irrelevant, and drag down the level of discourse to anonymous mud slinging.

A team of researchers from Internet search giant Yahoo and Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., is studying Web comment threads and experimenting with software that can determine when such threads cross that line between constructive and destructive. Today "the line" is often determined by a community editor or Web site manager who, in addition to dozens of other responsibilities, must monitor comment threads.

Anonymous environments, where commenters are allowed to hide their identities or create a cryptic or jocular username, are more likely to yield aggressively worded comment threads, says Elizabeth Churchill, a principal research scientist at Yahoo Research who manages the company’s Internet Experiences Group. This aggression affects not only the people participating in the thread, who come to feel as though intimidating or insulting language is the norm, but also potential newcomers, who’re less likely to jump into a debate if it has already turned negative, she adds.

Churchill and Pomona College assistant professor of computer science Sara Owsley Sood led the research group, which developed software that they dubbed a "sentiment engine" to analyze the words used across comment threads. The researchers distinguished off-topic negative comments from on-topic negative comments that, while critical, are offered in the spirit of debate. The approach was to combine relevance analyses for detecting on and off-topic comments with sentiment detection methods that broke comments down into three broad categories: happy, sad and angry.

Sentiment analysis is a Web site-specific problem—the same words that are perfectly fine to describe the weather (cold, hot, etc.) have a different meaning when they are used to describe people, for example. "Phatic statements and conversational comments are often the glue that moves a web site from being informational to being social," according to the research report, which Churchill will present Thursday at the 2010 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference in Atlanta. "Ideally in a community news comment site, we would want both of these elements."

Rather than automatically shutting down comment threads, the goal is to signal community and Web site managers of the potential for a problem but then to leave discretion in human hands, Churchill says. The ultimate outcome would be balance in comment threads, which may express anger or sadness but are nonetheless relevant. Another option might be to offer separate threads for commenters who want to "take it outside" and continue expressing their disagreements in the equivalent of a virtual parking lot.

The researchers found that most comment threads turn negative after some period of time, even if the first few comments express something positive. The researchers are looking for patterns that indicate when the conversation is about to go south and whether this is a product of the number of comments in a thread (sooner or later someone will have something unkind to say) or the influence of one negative comment that gives others the impression that negativity is acceptable.

The researchers acknowledge that there’s much more work to be done to improve the accuracy of their sentiment analysis systems. "It’s very much a preliminary investigation into sentiment detection techniques for trying to surface when people are being inappropriately aggressive in comment threads," Churchill says. "I’m very interested in how emotions affect what people do online."

Image courtesy of Andy Dean, via iStockPhoto.com





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  1. 1. AmanAhuja 4:48 pm 09/29/2010

    I was really looking forward to reading the comments on this post, but there were none here. I’ll leave the first.

    Based on the article, there must be a combination of ‘universal’ and ‘Web site-specific’ indicators to consider when analyzing a comment. I wonder if the algorithm being developed by Churchill & Co. relies upon a moderator’s feedback in order to ‘learn’ rules for the latter set.

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  2. 2. maxsmart 6:34 pm 09/29/2010

    So is it aggressive to say you think foreign wars of aggression based on lies is immoral… and is it unaggressive to say foreign wars of aggression based on lies are fine…

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  3. 3. JamesDavis 8:02 am 09/30/2010

    I think Elizabeth Churchill is onto something. Most e-papers and e-zine comment sections are there so the reporter can analyze the readers response to their article. I think it is the reporter who determines how the comments are going to go…north or south. If the reader is not allowed to vent their frustration or approval of the subject freely then you will get a false analysis.

    I think you will find the most aggressive comments are posted on political blogs. If there is anything that can rile a group up fast, its a political candidate…so, if you only want candy-coated comments on the article you just spent the last 20 minutes writing, stay away from political articles and known falsehoods.

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  4. 4. MCMalkemus 8:06 am 09/30/2010

    Anonymity breeds contempt and ignorance online.

    The way to solve abuse online is to make people accountable, just like they are in real life.

    Every see a car driving without an ID plate? People know they can be identified, and drive somewhat within reason.

    See the name for my log in? It’s my real name. I’m accountable.

    Link to this
  5. 5. SolaceAvatar 3:01 pm 09/30/2010

    Oh yes, you are so accountable. If you say something I dislike, I may have to take a plane trip to every "Malkemus" in the world to voice my displeasure in person.

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  6. 6. Bops 7:55 pm 10/3/2010

    What happened to common sense? So what, if someone says something I don’t like. It’s what they think…It’s no big deal. Really, I can sort remarks for myself.

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