Team of Sunderland experts launch pioneering project to tackle abuse and hate speech on social media

A team of Sunderland experts is pressing ahead with a pioneering app that aims to tackle abuse on social media after winning funding from search engine giant Google.

By Ross Robertson
Thursday, 21 March, 2019, 14:14
Principal Investigator Dr John Price, with co-investigators Professor Lynne Hall and Dr Kate MacFarlane at University of Sunderland

Academics from the University of Sunderland have received the money to help towards the SMART – Social Media Abuse Research Tool – project which aims to support journalists investigating online hate speech.

The project is a collaboration between journalism and computing specialists at the university.

Principal Investigator Dr John Price, with co-investigators Professor Lynne Hall and Dr Kate MacFarlane at University of Sunderland

They will make a prototype app that will be usable by journalists who have little or no knowledge of coding or programming.

The app will allow users to filter and locate abusive social media posts according to time-frames, types of abuse, and various other factors.

Dr John Price, Senior Lecturer in Journalism at the University, said: “We are delighted to receive this funding from Google DNI which will enable us to put our ideas into practice.

“Abuse, threats and hate speech on social media pose some of the major problems of our era and it is important journalists play an effective role in investigating this subject and holding policy makers and social media corporations to account.

“Collaborations between journalists and computing specialists have the potential to create useful tools for doing journalism in new and interesting ways. We hope our project will be part of that process.”

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The news comes after University of Sunderland research played a key role in revealing how high-profile Tory women were targeted for more sexist abuse on Twitter than their Labour counterparts, during the 2017 General Election.

The research, which was carried out in 2018, found 93% of the misogynistic tweets sent to frontbench female politicians during the campaign were directed at Conservatives - mainly the Prime Minister.

The study, in partnership with Creative Fuse North East, saw researchers capture tweets and log them instantly. It is hoped the new project will build on this work.

A huge amount of hate speech, threats and abuse are published every hour on social media platforms, posing one of the major social problems of our generation.

While it is important that journalists report this growing issue, they often do not have the tools needed to analyse the enormity of the issue.

Google’s Digital News Innovation Fund (DNIFund) is a European organisation created by the search engine giant to "support high-quality journalism through technology and innovation".

The university has been awarded 41,867 Euros - £36,089 – from DNI towards the year-long project. It is the first time the institution has received this type of funding.

As well as Dr Price, academics working on the project include Lynne Hall, Professor of Computer Science, Dr Kate MacFarlane, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science, and Chris Bowerman, Professor of Data Science (Artificial Intelligence).