Northeastern and Northwestern professors fight online trolling in joint project

By Mack Hogan, staff writer

Researchers at Northeastern University and Northwestern University have been awarded $499,571 in grants by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to combat online trolling.

The primary investigators, Alan Mislove, a Northeastern associate professor of computer science and associate dean and director of undergraduate programs, and Aleksandar Kuzmakovic, a Northwestern computer science professor, are working to identify and eliminate trolling.

Trolls, described in the grant as groups attempting to “influence public opinion on the Internet, by leaving biased, false, misleading and inauthentic comments and then artificially amplifying their ratings,” can be fought using tracking infrastructure already in place online, according to Kuzmakovic.

“When you go to a website you get a cookie that tracks you,” said Kuzmakovic. “We’re trying to see how we can utilize this to combat the multiple identities used by trolls. In a nutshell, what it does is that when you come to a website and try and comment or vote, the website asks you to show a unique identifier that shows that you’re a legitimate user.”

Trolling has become more popular recently, as groups realize the power that inauthentic accounts can have in shaping a conversation, Mislove said. In recent years, reports have speculated that Russia and China are using accounts online to shift public opinion in their favor. Businesses and other pages have been accused of similar practices.

“On Facebook, for instance, one of the things people want is ‘like,’” said Mislove. “There are somewhat sketchy services out there that control thousands or millions of accounts where you can pay them money and they’ll have all of their accounts ‘like’ you. It’s an easy way for you to sort of look like you’re popular. These sorts of things exist for Twitter, they exist for Pinterest, they exist for pretty much every site.”

“We’re very concerned about user privacy, but at the same time the tracking infrastructure that exists today […] has significant privacy implications for users,” Mislove said. “What we’re trying to do is to turn that around so it benefits users.”

Mislove said that he is teaming up with Kuzmakovic to create a system that, without having to work directly with advertising networks, could use the trackers and cookies left behind by the tracking systems to verify that there is a unique user who exists outside of one website. A website could then allow each unique user to make one account, preventing the inauthentic comments, likes and vote manipulation that comes from online trolls.

This verification, Kuzmakovic hopes, will be possible without compromising on privacy like current anti-trolling measures do.

“The website will just know you’re unique,” Kuzmakovic says. “They’ll have no idea who you are.”

The NSF provides funding to projects it sees as important to national security, science in general and the economic competitiveness of the nation. In the past, it has funded a variety of projects seeking to explore and understand online behavior, according to Darleen Fisher, a program director in the Division of Computer and Network Systems at the National Science Foundation at the NSF.

“This project was supported through the National Science Foundation’s Networking Technology and Systems program, which supports cutting-edge research on fundamental scientific and technological advances in communications networking,” Fisher said in a statement.  “The work aims to address a relevant and timely emerging trend with the goal of evolving networking practices that can combat multiple-identity attacks while preserv[ing] internet users’ privacy.”