Hiding behind a social media smokescreen is about to get harder, for better or for worse.
A new tool developed by Spanish researchers analyzes the language in social media updates to determine the author's sex and age group.
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The tool, which doesn't have a slick name quite yet, comes from the Polytechnic University of Valencia's Pattern Recognition and Human Language Technology group. It works by taking anonymously written text from social media sites and analyzing it for factors like verb tenses, affective content, repeated grammatical categories, and expression types.
All that language data then goes into an initial graph. Then another layer of info about what those factors indicate gets added. Finally, machine learning algorithms are applied to make a prediction from all the data.
As a result, the tool can identify whether the anonymous writer is male or female - and whether the person is a child, teenager or an adult, according to a university press release.
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The tool was developed by Autoritas Consulting CTO Francisco Rangel and university researcher Paolo Rosso. They published details in the journal Information Processing & Management (abstract) earlier this year.
Whether the tool is good or bad comes down to who's applying it. I'm apprehensive about tech that allows advertisers to learn information about social media users wasn't made public. At the same time, the tool could give law enforcement an edge: The researchers envision it being used to track down criminals.
Police are already trying out the tool to investigate bomb threats, the authors said in the university announcement. "In these cases, monitoring related accounts can be useful, not only to see what individuals are talking about, but also to profile their authors," they concluded. "The tools are also able to detect false profiles."
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Privacy is a balancing act. Just about everything that we hope will protect us online can also be co-opted to hurt us. My hope is that this powerful tool doesn't inadvertently expose social media users who created alternate personas to protect themselves from abuse.
At the same time, in a world reeling from attacks and lockdowns, a tool that could actually spare us from further terror would be something to be thankful for.