Jigsaw, the technology incubator within Google’s parent company Alphabet, released a new tool Thursday that uses aims to improve publishers’ comment sections by using machine learning to identify “toxic” comments — defined as “a rude, disrespectful, or unreasonable comment that is likely to make you leave a discussion.”
The tool is called Perspective, and Jigsaw is testing it with The New York Times, The Guardian, The Economist, and Wikipedia. Other outlets can request access to Perspective’s API.
In a Medium post, Jigsaw president Jared Cohen explained how Perspective works:
Perspective reviews comments and scores them based on how similar they are to comments people said were “toxic” or likely to make someone leave a conversation. To learn how to spot potentially toxic language, Perspective examined hundreds of thousands of comments that had been labeled by human reviewers. Each time Perspective finds new examples of potentially toxic comments, or is provided with corrections from users, it can get better at scoring future comments.
Publishers can choose what they want to do with the information they get from Perspective. For example, a publisher could flag comments for its own moderators to review and decide whether to include them in a conversation. Or a publisher could provide tools to help their community understand the impact of what they are writing — by, for example, letting the commenter see the potential toxicity of their comment as they write it. Publishers could even just allow readers to sort comments by toxicity themselves, making it easier to find great discussions hidden under toxic ones.
(Whatever anxiety journalists might have about someday being replaced by algorithms, one suspects that reading hundreds of thousands of toxic comments is a job most wouldn’t mind handing off to the robots.)
Users can play around with the tool on Perspective’s website. A slider lets you see different levels of toxicity on specific topics. For example, here are comments Perspective considers high in toxicity on climate change:
They have their heads up their ass.
They are liberal idiots who are uneducated.
Climate change is happening and it’s not changing in our favor. If you think differently you’re an idiot.
They’re allowed to do that. But if they act like assholes about, I will block them. How can you be so stupid?
They’re stupid, it’s getting warmer, we should enjoy it while it lasts.
I think those people are stupid and short-sighted
It rates these are middling in toxicity:
uneducated bumpkins or willfully ignorant with vested interests
My thoughts are that people should stop being stupid and ignorant. Climate change is scientifically proven. It isn’t a debate.
You either trust in God or think you are smarter than him.
I think its a farce and stinks like a bathroom after 26 beers
They are uninformed or ignorant
Their opinion, just don’t force it down my throat
And these it rates low in toxicity:
I think the earth goes through cycles and we’re in a warmer cycle
I respect them but I believe they think I am stupid and only thinking short-term. I believe we don’t know what will happen long-term regardless of supporting regulation regarding climate change. Regulation impedes industry and job creation.
I think it exists. But, I am not big on regulations regarding climate change. The EPA regulates way too much.
Clearly man made, but unsure of its extent and whether anything substantial can be done about it
Haven’t seen unbiased data
It’s a natural phenomenon.
Climate changes naturally.
I believe that we are contributing to an already existing ‘condition’ that occurs, naturally, over the millennium.
I think that there is not much that we can do and that we play a very small role in the overall changing of our planets climate
Climate change is occurring but humans have little impact if any for its cause.
(Toxicity is clearly not the only scale on which one could measure the quality of a comment — Perspective makes no claims to be measuring accuracy.)
You can also type in your own comments to see how they are graded on Perspective’s scale — scaling your inner jerk up and down to see the impact:
The New York Times is using Perspective to create a tool that will allow its comment moderators to sift through comments more efficiently, Cohen said in his post. Because the Times uses a staff of moderators
to review all comments, commenting is allowed on only about 10 percent of what the Times publishes. The paper wants to use the new tool to allow it to enable more comments, Cohen wrote.
The Economist, meanwhile, will try the tool on some of its blogs, community editor Denise Law told Fortune. Law said that “really good” comments are often overwhelmed by some of the less productive contributions.
“The Economist has long been a place for debate, but the comments are not at the level we’ve hoped them to be,” Law said.
Perspective is just the latest in a (very) long line of attempts to improve comments. The Times, The Washington Post, the Mozilla Foundation, and the Knight Foundation have supported the Coral Project
, which develops open-source tools to improve community. Similarly, a Portland-based startup called Civil
created its own commenting platform that requires users to grade the civility of comments.
Jigsaw said it will be rolling out access to Perspective to other publishers over the course of 2017, and Cohen said the team will improve the tool’s machine learning capabilities over time. Perspective may ultimately be expanded into languages other than English and used to create “models that can identify other perspectives, such as when comments are unsubstantial or off-topic.”