Nice bot com­bats nasty tweets against women

The Timaru Herald - - National News - Eu­gene Bing­ham Adam Dud­ding

A for­eign bot is at work try­ing to in­flu­ence the New Zealand elec­tion cam­paign. But it is not what you might think.

Cana­dian de­vel­op­ers have cre­ated Par­i­tyBOTNZ, a Twit­ter ac­count that coun­ter­acts toxic tweets di­rected at women run­ning in the elec­tion.

Kasey Machin, co-founder of so­cial en­ter­prise tech com­pany Areto Labs, told Stuff’s Tick. Tick pod­cast the idea came about af­ter her at­tempts to en­cour­age women into pol­i­tics.

‘‘Al­most ev­ery­one came back and said that one of the ma­jor bar­ri­ers to run­ning for of­fice was the amount of on­line hate that they were go­ing to re­ceive. And so that is re­ally what led us to de­velop Par­i­tyBOT be­cause it is such a prob­lem.’’

Machin said they de­vised a tech­nol­ogy so­lu­tion to try to even things out.

‘‘We use ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and ma­chine learn­ing to de­tect tox­i­c­ity in the Twit­ter-verse, and then we turn those neg­a­tive tweets into a pos­i­tive tweet.’’

The first Par­i­tyBOT launched last year in Canada dur­ing fed­eral and lo­cal elec­tions but Machin said a con­nec­tion with a col­league now liv­ing in New Zealand, Jac­que­line Comer, led them to try it here, too. Comer said there was some dis­cus­sion about how ef­fec­tive the bot would be in New Zealand, given its in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion for ‘‘nice­ness’’.

‘‘There was a bit of con­cern and a bit of gig­gling be­fore we ac­tu­ally turned the bot on to see: is it ac­tu­ally go­ing to work in New Zealand? There is a pas­siveag­gres­sive way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing here – will the bot even pick up on the nu­ances of Kiwi English? And we had to teach the bot some Kiwi col­lo­qui­alisms as well.’’

So far, un­for­tu­nately, Par­i­tyBOTNZ is de­tect­ing plenty of toxic tweets. As of last week, out of 70,000 tweets the bot mon­i­tored, about 1200 were toxic enough to war­rant a re­sponse.

About 80 per cent of the worst tweets were di­rected at the two main party

lead­ers, Jacinda Ardern and Ju­dith Collins, but plenty of other women were tar­geted too.

To trig­ger a re­sponse, the tweet is not just off-colour – it has to reach a cer­tain thresh­old of ob­nox­ious­ness.

‘‘We have set it at a 90 per cent tox­i­c­ity rate,’’ said Machin.

Ex­am­ples of tweets which have trig­gered a re­sponse in­clude: ‘‘@jacin­daardern you are a ..... piece of .... that trough (sic) maori (sic) un­der the bus you racist ....’’ and ‘‘@Ju­dithCollin­sMP your hubby is a .... .....’’

Rather than re­ply di­rectly to the of­fend­ing tweet, the bot gen­er­ates a stand­alone pos­i­tive tweet from the Par­i­tyBOTNZ ac­count, such as: ‘‘Ig­nore the trolls. Your voice mat­ters and peo­ple are lis­ten­ing.’’

Par­i­tyBOTNZ is fol­low­ing about 60 women run­ning in the New Zealand elec­tion and Comer said she hoped it would spark a change that spread around the world.

‘‘It would be amaz­ing if the 5 mil­lion of us can un­der­stand this is­sue and can make a dif­fer­ence and call other peo­ple out. Par­i­tyBOT is great, we can call it out, we can send out pos­i­tiv­ity, but the more aware­ness we have about this is­sue, the more we un­der­stand it is a bar­rier for en­try for women, women of colour, to ac­tu­ally par­tic­i­pate in equal govern­ment,’’ Comer said.

Tick. Tick: Stuff’s 2020 elec­tion pod­cast is hosted by Stuff jour­nal­ists Adam Dud­ding and Eu­gene Bing­ham. Sub­scribe via iTunes, Spo­tify, Stitcher, Google Pod­casts or wher­ever you get your pod­casts.

Par­i­tyBOT co-founder Kasey Machin first launched the tool in Canada.

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