Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Q&A with Henry Lieberman about Cyberbullying

Last week The Atlantic published “How to Stop the Bullies,” a piece about the epidemic of bullying online and the response to this growing problem from social media site administrators, educators, researchers, and public groups such as Anonymous. Henry Lieberman, principal research scientist at the MIT Media Lab, was featured in the piece in a lengthy discussion of the work he and his grad students Karthik Dinakar and Birago Jones have done with cyberbullying.

As explained in this video from NowThisNews, Lieberman and his team hope to use the algorithm they’ve developed to prevent instances of cyberbullying by giving users a warning about their language and an enforced pause before posting potentially harmful content.

The article and the video provoked a flurry of response on Facebook and Twitter, with many asking for more details about the work. Here are his responses to the questions asked most often.

What was your motivation for working to combat bullies when you first began this work?

The project was started by my students Karthik Dinakar and Birago Jones, who were deeply moved by press reports of teens committing suicide and other heartbreaking stories. They saw an opportunity for natural language understanding and user interface design to help, and nobody in the academic community at the time was working on how to improve social network software to deal with the problem.

How can we make the connection that cyberbullying affects students in school? (Sometimes children think it is separate from school and this gives them the freedom to say what they "want" to say.)

Studies show that cyberbullying results in poorer performance in school for bullying victims, and surprisingly, for the bullies, too. We want to respect people’s freedom to say what they want, but kids should understand that if what you say hurts others, then it’s not cool, even if you “have the right to say it.”

From my understanding, some web accounts cannot be set up until a certain age. How are children able to open accounts? Are there ways to hold those who provide services responsible?

Some networks do have a minimum age limit, but kids get around it by using false identities. Some sites do insist on a credit card or other proof of adulthood or adult approval. No enforcement is perfect. But if kids do manage to join a network meant for older people, then they have to be held to adult standards of responsible behavior.

Dr. L, what is the thinking process that's disrupted by the prompt to "reflect" before sending a mean message? Does the prompt have the potential to promote impulse control in general?

Many times, bullying behavior starts out as users trying to be funny. Some users, innocently, try to be funny and wind up saying hurtful things. This is usually easy to fix, as a little bit of reflection will often cause the person to realize why it might be hurtful, and it’s easy for people to forgive others who didn’t intend harm. People who actually have an intent to hurt are more difficult to stop with a warning. Even there, though, reflection can sometimes convince them that hurtful comments would damage their own reputation or open themselves up to negative consequences.

For the good doc: It seems like an assumption in this tech is that bullies act on impulse. Giving them pause to double check that they really want to send something is certainly a way to curb that impulse, but every bully I've ever met (or e-met) is usually on a rampage for at least a half hour or so. What research has your team done to suggest that an in-the-moment response to an in-the-moment problem is actually effective? Have you experimented with "holding" offensive posts for different periods of time?

That would be a good experiment to try, but we haven’t yet done it. Anecdotally, we find that when bullying is recognized and “called out,” in the majority of cases, people tend to back off. I agree that this won’t stop a really hard-core bully.

Your software invites comparison to spam filters, which also employ algorithms to separate certain kinds of web content from others. How sound is that analogy? How is it different?

Gmail can do such a good job with spam because it “crowdsources” the judgment of whether the message is spam. Spam is sent nearly identically to large numbers of people. It also has telltale words that can be identified. Bullying is more personalized and context-dependent. Sometimes bullying takes the form of racial, ethnic, or appearance stereotypes, and you need the knowledge of what those stereotypes are (without endorsing them) in order to recognize that it's taking place. So it is a challenging problem for us. But, like spam, it is a make-or-break issue for social networks.

Isn't bullying an inherent part of our make-up? I have no scientific sources to back up my statement but I believe it's something that will always be around, like thieves and liars.

That’s a misconception I’d like to strongly refute. Many people don’t bully and don’t experience it, so no, it’s not inevitable. Studies show that for both bullies and victims, negative effects such as doing worse in school, worse health outcomes, and rates of criminality are higher than those who have no involvement. See Emily Bazelon’s book, Sticks and Stones and the MTV/Associated Press survey on bullying. In 2011, we went to the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention, where President Obama said, “If there’s one goal of this conference, it’s to dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up. It’s not.”

My question is: When do you anticipate the algorithm will be ready to implement on a large-scale social network, like Facebook or Twitter?

We don’t know exactly when. We would like to collaborate with these companies to work on this. Some of our software is currently on MTV’s site “Over the Line?”, where it matches a user's story to other stories on the site that talk about similar experiences. Reading a story that matches your own personal experience can provide emotional support, and perhaps even useful advice about the situation.

Thank you to everyone who submitted questions!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

2013 Health and Wellness Innovation Hackathon

Dr. Lindi van Niekerk is a research officer at the University of Cape Town, South Africa's Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship. She visited the Media Lab to participate in the 2013 Health and Wellness Innovation Hackathon, held from January 22 - February 1, 2013. In the following post, Lindi reflects upon her experiences as a member of a HWI hackathon team.

Innovation is taking healthcare by storm in the USA, but the same wave has not yet hit our South African shores. As an MD from Cape Town, South Africa, I have become exceedingly interested in the role innovation could play in transforming an African healthcare system. South Africa, just like the United States, is facing a myriad of health challenges relating to the colliding of the epidemic of infectious disease, such as HIV, with chronic diseases of lifestyle. These diseases place extreme strain on a system struggling to provide affordable and effective healthcare to an 84% uninsured population.

Now more than ever, we in South Africa require innovation from the ground up to transform challenges into new opportunities to deliver improved care to our patients and achieve better health outcomes. But how can we do this? There are no better leaders from whom to learn from than the MIT Media Lab and the Health and Wellness Innovation Hackathon organised by John Moore at the MIT Media Lab.

From left: Health & Wellness Innovation organizer and Media Lab PhD student John Moore, MD; Lindi van Niekerk, MD; and Media Lab research affiliate Julius Akinyemi.

For two weeks, I was able to surround myself with passionate innovators who worked in six project teams to address health challenges like HIV, epilepsy, hypertension, endometriosis, Parkinson’s, and cardiac failure. These teams pushed toward new frontiers in patient empowerment. In all health systems, we need to realise that our patients are competent interpreters of their own lives and that our role as innovators is to support them with the best means to do so.

I joined a group of experts developing a mobile application to support HIV patients in managing their disease, a project well-suited to a priority need in South Africa. This diverse team of clinicians, software developers, biomedical engineers, health literacy experts, and behaviour-change experts had a range of knowledge and backgrounds that worked to catalyse innovation. The first few days allowed for a wonderfully messy and creative process of sharing new and fresh ideas on how patients can be supported with medication adherence. After exploring broadly, we were able to focus on the core components and got started on developing a prototype. From animated videos providing educational insights, to screen designs targeted at both patients and providers, to an incorporated point of care test, the HIVIVA application emerged.

The product outcomes of such an innovation process are, of course, a benefit of attending a two-week event like this–but the relationships that result are arguably as great a benefit. I had the opportunity to form friendships and connections with such special people, including my teammates and members of the extended MIT family.

My ability to attend the hackathon was made possible through the unique and exciting collaboration being established between MIT and the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation at the Graduate School of Business in Cape Town. In addition, the people of the MIT Media Lab–Julius Akinyemi, Joost Bonsen, and John Moore–gave value to my visit, as did my host Michele Oshima who kindly opened her home to me for two weeks.

I departed MIT more excited than ever and filled with new enthusiasm to take the innovation process back to Cape Town. I look forward to creating a stimulating and enabling environment for our local innovators and entrepreneurs to uncover novel solutions to improve healthcare for our patients who need it most.