Computer-Curated Civility from Google

“There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.” — Linus

That is not a Donald Trump slur from Linus, btw.

“What if Technology Could Help Improve Online Conversation?”

That’s the question Google is trying to answer with a new crowd engagement project called “Perspective.”

Remember “Letters to the Editor”? They were a huge draw for newspapers. And when they were edited, usually for clarity, they made your neighbors sounds smart, and your town feel important.

That’s not true for on-line comments sections.

Despite growing journalistic wisdom around community engagement, when that engagement comes in the form of neighbors commenting, it is disenfranchising and scary.

A lively community news outlet on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the West Side Rag, moderates reader comments. On the announcement of the Not My President’s Day Rally on February 20th, 86 comments made it through the firewall of “civil” discourse. But twice the moderator had to step in, explain the rules of engagement, and many commenters complained their comments were silenced.

After the rally, the comments section was simply closed:

“We’re going to pause comments on articles about national politics for a while; everyone needs a break. If you’re hankering to comment, you can do so on our Facebook page.”

By referring commenters to its Facebook page, WSR was trying to strip away anonymity and hopefully some of the nastiness of the neighbors.

Last Thursday, Google announced the release of a new artificial intelligence tool that will hopefully help moderate comments. It’s called Perspective, and the New York Times, Guardian, Economist and Wikipedia have signed up to help beta the software.

They’re looking to define what constitutes “toxicity” in a conversation, and what constitutes constructive dialogue. They have an interface you can play with here.

The Times reports that it has 14 full time moderators who together review over 11,000 comments every day. With that kind of volume, they’re able to publish comments on only 10% of their news stories.

“The Times hopes that the project will expand viewpoints, provide a safe platform for diverse communities to have diverse discussions and allow readers’ voices to be an integral part of nearly every piece of reporting. The new technology will also free up Times moderators to engage in deeper interactions with readers.”

Here’s a screenshot of Perspective’s interface:

The question I posed, “I wonder if that’s true?” received the toxicity score of 2%, on the low end of the scale. The “2% similar”, meaning not very similar, is a little awkward, but the developers at Perspective are planning to roll out improvements over the course of this year.

To help Perspective get better at judging the cultural nuance of comments, a reader has the option to give feedback with the “SEEM WRONG?” button. “That’s stupid!” is found to be 95% toxic, which seems right.

Perspective seems to understand direct insults. But it isn’t clear how satire, sarcasm, or lampoons, all potentially toxic, or invigorating, depending on your viewpoint, will work in an AI-moderated sphere.

It may end up being a time-saver for news organizations, but what happens when you eliminate the fringe, if personally unpleasant, voices? I’ve asked my personal Hive Mind to help me think about this on Facebook to no avail.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has written that we teach each other to be human.

“None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. I am because other people are.”

Are we mobilizing the internet to help us become better humans?

And now “why Linus?”: a little self-care.

“Three Things To Do When You’re Not Invited To The Gaggle”

One. Take a look at Trump’s biography on

Strangely, I mean like, eerily, there’s no mention of his astounding win of the 2016 US Presidential election … until the very last sentence. An afterthought? Business as usual? Your calendar just freed up, write about some new aspect of Trump’s conflicts of interests. There are plenty. Mike Pence will thank you.

Two. Watch reruns of Robert Reich on Facebook Live. He is a voice of sanity. Reich thinks Americans should boycott Trump and his heirs. Amplify that.

Three. Call Daylin Leach for comment. He wins the internet regularly. He should be your new best friend.

Perspective might be the internet’s new best friend.