Feds Financing System to ‘Automatically Detect’ Cyberbullying

$117,102 National Science Foundation project

March 27, 2015

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is financing the creation of a system for the "automatic detection" of cyberbullying.

The project was awarded this month to Rutgers University, which has received $117,102 so far. The real-time, automatic detection of hurtful online speech is necessary, according to the NSF grant, because cyberbullying is a "critical social problem." The grant said 40 percent of American teenagers have reported being cyberbullied.

"This project aims to define new approaches for automatic detection of cyberbullying by integrating the relevant research in social sciences and computer science," the grant said.

The project will involve searching for keywords and studying the relationships between teenagers who send and receive mean online messages.

"Specifically, this research will advance the state of the art in cyberbullying detection beyond textual analysis by also giving due attention to the social relationships in which these bullying messages are exchanged," the grant said.

"A higher accuracy at detection would allow for better mitigation of the cyberbullying phenomenon and may help improve the lives of thousands of victims who are cyberbullied each year," it said.

The project hopes to employ "social intervention mechanisms" to prevent cyberbullying. Data on cyberbullying will also "be made available to the larger research community."

The project begins in July and is set to last through June 2017.

The goal of the project is to create "better cyberbullying detectors."

"By analyzing the social relationship graph between users and deriving features such as number of friends, network embeddedness, and relationship centrality, the project will validate (and potentially refine) multiple theories in social science literature and assimilate those findings to create better cyberbullying detectors," the grant said. "The project will yield new, comprehensive models and algorithms that can be used for cyberbullying detection in automated settings."

The grant added that "text mining" of cyber conversations is not enough, as the project also seeks to conduct data analysis on a "much bigger scale."

Vivek K. Singh, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University, is leading the project.

"I have worked on multiple projects including designing a novel media sharing application, detecting patterns in large scale Twitter feeds, and analyzing community behavior in social media to design mechanisms to 'nudge' people into suitable behaviors," he writes on his website.

Singh previously studied Twitter hashtags, arguing that people, "make a conscious decision to hash-tag their post, because they want to relate it to an event which is relevant to others in the same spatio-temporal volume."

Singh did not respond to a request for comment.

The Obama administration has placed a priority on preventing cyberbullying. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) runs a website to stop cyberbullying that encourages Americans to report mean online behavior to law enforcement and schools.

President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted the first ever White House conference on the subject in 2011.

"If there is one goal of this conference, it is to dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up," President Obama said.

Other measures to counter cyberbullying have raised concerns about privacy and government overreach.

A new law in Illinois to combat cyberbullying allows school administrators to demand the passwords of student’s social media accounts. Schools only need a "reasonable cause to believe that a student’s account on a social network contains evidence that a student has violated a school’s disciplinary rule of policy," FOX 2 in St. Louis reported.

Australia is seeking to establish an "Office of the Children’s e-Safety Commissioner," who can fine social media networks AU$17,000 a day for not taking down a post that the government has deemed cyberbullying. A bill working its way through the Australian senate defines cyberbullying as "seriously threatening, seriously intimidating, seriously harassing, or seriously humiliating."

Liberal Australian senator Cory Bernardi warned that the legislation might go too far.

"Ultimately, children need to be taught a bit of resilience in some ways," he said. "There is not always going to be someone there to pick up the hurt feelings."