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Polite, unofficial warnings can reduce hate speech on Twitter, New York University study finds

Research finds that users who received polite suspension warnings from unofficial handles reduced hate speech by 15-20%, although the effect tended not to last longer than a month.

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New Delhi: Politely warning Twitter users who use hate speech that their actions could end up getting their accounts suspended can get them to reduce their use of such speech, a new study by researchers from New York University (NYU) has found. 

Published in the journal Perspectives on Politics on 22 November, the study selected Twitter users who were followers of accounts previously suspended for hate speech. When such users received polite warnings from unofficial handles, they reduced their use of hate speech by as much as 15-20 per cent, although the effect tended not to last longer than a month. 

“Even though the impact of warnings is temporary, the research nonetheless provides a potential path forward for platforms seeking to reduce the use of hateful language by users,” Mustafa Mikdat Yildirim, the lead author of the paper and a doctoral candidate at NYU, said in a statement.

Twitter and other social media platforms have begun to suspend large numbers of accounts, notably including that of former US President Donald Trump, following the attack on the Capitol on 6 January this year. However, many have raised questions about the effectiveness of such measures at curbing hate speech. 

“Debates over the effectiveness of social media account suspensions and bans on abusive users abound, but we know little about the impact of either warning a user of suspending an account or of outright suspensions in order to reduce hate speech,” said Yildirim, explaining the significance of the study. 

Also read: How Facebook led a new India user to gore, fake news in just 21 days

Finding ‘suspension candidates’

In the study, the researchers focussed on followers of users whose accounts had been suspended for posting tweets that used hateful language. The researchers believed that these users, if they also used hateful language themselves, might consider themselves potential ‘suspension candidates’ once they learned someone they followed had been suspended. 

These users would be more willing to moderate their behaviour following a warning, the team posited. 

To find such users, the researchers downloaded more than 6,00,000 tweets on 21 July 2020 that were posted in the week prior. This was at a time that Twitter — especially for users in the US — was flooded by hateful tweets against both Asian and Black people in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests respectively. 

The team screened for tweets that contained at least one word from hateful language dictionaries used in previous research. 

From this group, the researchers took a sample of approximately 4,300 users who were followers of those suspended by Twitter during this period. 

These followers were divided into six treatment groups and one control group. 

Also read: Hate speech, now ‘fear speech’ — study finds new way Indians on WhatsApp ‘target minorities’

Polite warnings result in 15-20 per cent reduction

The researchers tweeted one of six possible warning messages to the users from unofficial handles, all starting with the sentence: “The user [@account] you follow was suspended, and I suspect that this was because of hateful language.” 

This was followed by different types of warnings, ranging from “If you continue to use hate speech, you might get suspended temporarily”, to “If you continue to use hate speech, you might lose your posts, friends and followers, and not get your account back.” 

The control group didn’t get any messages.

The users who got these warning messages reduced the ratio of tweets with hateful language by up to 10 per cent a week later. There was no significant decrease among those in the control group. 

The reduction hit 15 to 20 per cent when the messaging to users was more politely worded — such as “I understand that you have every right to express yourself but please keep in mind that using hate speech can get you suspended.”

By the time a month had passed, however, the impact of the warnings had disappeared, the study found.

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)

Also read: Facebook knew hate-speech problem was bigger than it disclosed publicly


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