Duration: 4 October 2021 to 7 February 2024
Grant NPRP13S-0206-200281 funded by Qatar National Research Fund
PI: Paolo Rosso
Members: Berta Chulvi

Societies are increasingly divided and polarized. This polarization is driven by two connected issues: the lack of communication between groups, and the use of hate speech. With social media speeding up the spread of hateful ideologies, polarization and technology go hand in hand. Statistics reveal the scale of the problem; 41% of people have been the target of hate speech. As communities recede into themselves, the prospect of conflict grows. Recent terror attacks and communal violence in India, New Zealand, and Germany highlight the dangers of this polarization. The United Nations Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and Actors to Prevent Incitement to Violence that could lead to Atrocity Crimes is instructive: ‘hate speech is normally defined as any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that denigrates a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race or other identity factor . We will adopt this definition of hate speech which is aligned to prior literature. Social media is also providing new opportunities for polarization and hate speech. Shielded behind anonymity, state actors and political entities are using social media to manipulate public opinion on an industrial scale, driving polarization with disinformation and hate speech to serve often extremist agendas. Combined with bots – automated accounts – these partisan entities can achieve a negative impact in society. As in the recent Gulf Crisis millions of bots were found to be spreading anti-Qatar hate speech and disinformation. Social media companies have been slow to tackle the problem, for instance, Facebook redefined hate speech pages as controversial humor. While Twitter introduced a new policy stating “You may not dehumanize anyone based on membership in an identifiable group, as this speech can lead to offline harm”, the business model of social media companies may also not be conducive to tackling hate speech. Indeed, hate speech pages can be popular, encouraging clicks and driving advertising revenue to web companies. This is why tackling hate speech and polarization requires multilateral efforts involving the companies themselves, academic and civil society. There have been efforts to address the problem such as the efforts done by the European Commission to tackle hate speech by signing a code of conduct with social media companies to fight hate speech. However, the problem is a global issue. Despite the widespread adoption of social media in the MENA region, most efforts in tackling hate speech also tend to focus on the developed world, with little research targeting Arabic. Without adequate, contextual-based research, countries in the developing world in particular risk becoming social media blackspots – spaces where hate speech flourishes in unregulated and permissive online environments.

The main aim of this project is to address this gap and pave the way for further research on Polarization and Hate Speech in Arab societies. Our research will address different problems that contribute to the detection of polarization and hate speech: 1) Stance detection with respect to controversial topics (a topic generating a polarized discussion: in favor vs. against); 2) Identification of polarized communities; 3) Hate speech detection; 4) Bot versus human identification and 5) Behavioral interventions to address hate speech.

These components will be considered from a holistic perspective unlike some of the existing research works, which address them as isolated problems. Our proposal focuses on four components: 1) Annotated Language Resources; 2) Polarized Communities Analysis; 3) Methods and Tools; 4) Behavioral interventions and experiments to address hate speech 5) Application Scenarios with the stakeholders.

We will create annotated Arabic corpora from social media with the stance information (in favor, against or neutral) with respect to controversial topics (e.g., Qatar vs. Saudi Arabia), polarized communities (e.g Liberals vs Conservatives) and the hateful usage of the language (e.g. insults, aggressive words). This will include creating an Arabic multi-dialectal lexicon of hate speech and aggressive language.

The project has several application scenarios. In the context of cyber-security, government agencies could detect individuals and groups that spread hate speech and take appropriate countermeasures. Furthermore, bots spreading hate speech who increase the tension and polarization in society can be detected automatically.In a recent study by PI Jones, 17% of a random sample of tweets in Arabic that mention Qatar were tweeted by bots in May 2017 and that increased to 29% in May 2018. In addition, social media companies could profit from language resources and project tools to automate the detection of hate speech in the Arabic language and its dialects. Moreover, communication and advertising agencies, as well as organizations in general, could profit from knowing the stance of citizens and consumers with respect to some topic or service or reputation management.

The main novelty of this proposal is in the scope, the multidisciplinary nature and the coverage of the addressed problems: we will address the main related problems to polarization as a whole, and not as isolated problems as it was done in some existing projects. Behavioral experiments and interventions will be conducted to address the issue of hate speech. We will test the state-of-the-art methods of artificial intelligence to automatically approach the aforementioned problems in Arab social media. By taking into account the legal, the behavioral and the ethical dimensions of the software solutions as well as data protection considerations, we plan to create tools that will allow others to use them to detect polarization, hate speech, and bots.