The Web Log of Jon Henshaw

💬 Can civil discourse be saved by Perspective?

Written by , published on and related to 💻 Technology

It’s become rare to find comment threads on news articles that are civil and thoughtful. Instead, most comments are full of people calling the opposing side names and telling them why they’re wrong. People who reply typically use the same tone and defend their own points with religious-like vigor. Nobody is listening and nobody’s minds are being changed. As a result, people who could positively and constructively be contributing to the discussion are vanishing.

Last week Google debuted a new toxicity detecting service for online discussions called Perspective. While some people see this approach as an affront to our freedom of speech (which it is not), it is an affront to intentionally contentious and pugnacious commenters.

The goal of the Perspective API is to bring back some semblance of online civil discourse. To help create it, Google partnered with the New York Times and Wikipedia and analyzed their comments data.

It analyzed the Times moderators’ decisions as they triaged reader comments, and used that data to train itself to identify harmful speech. The training materials also included hundreds of thousands of comments on Wikipedia, evaluated by thousands of different moderators.

I tested Perspective and was impressed by its results.

While Perspective is promising, it’s still no panacea and it is a form of censorship. Machine learning and algorithms can only go so far when it comes to human language and intent. Not only will there be false positives, but some of the incorrectly filtered comments may also end up being the most profound and irenic messages that nobody will ever get to see or consider. And like most technology, it can be gamed. Civil and relevant dissent may be filtered, while useless and sardonic comments may slip through undetected.

Perhaps, over time, weighting can be applied to authors. The algorithm could take that weighting into consideration and highlight conversations by authors who engage in civil discourse, regardless of their positions and ideology.

Civil discourse is how we progress as a people. The internet presents the most incredible communication medium of our time and we’re currently squandering it with our inability to speak intelligently to each other. My hope is that technologies like Perspective will help save online civil discourse without censoring diverse ideas and perspectives.