In Box

Measuring Hate

The first hate Web site (sponsored by a white-supremacist group) appeared on the Internet in March 1995. Today, the number of hate sites on the Net exceeds 4,000, according to Richard Eaton, a researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Alarmed by the racial and ethnic stereotypes being peddled online, Middle East scholar Stephen P. Cohen ...

The first hate Web site (sponsored by a white-supremacist group) appeared on the Internet in March 1995. Today, the number of hate sites on the Net exceeds 4,000, according to Richard Eaton, a researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Alarmed by the racial and ethnic stereotypes being peddled online, Middle East scholar Stephen P. Cohen and software entrepreneur Jacob Levy recently created software that gauges levels of hatred on the Web, the Global Hatred Index (GHI).

Using algorithms and text-analysis technology, Cohen and Levy’s software automatically searches, scans, and analyzes millions of Internet messages — from online discussion forums, chat rooms, blogs, etc. — to assess levels of hatred toward, say, the United States, Jews, or Muslims. For instance, in one recent index, conducted between June 2003 and May 2004, the software analyzed nearly 2 million messages. The results? An average of 35 percent of the messages expressed some level of anti-Americanism, 32 percent were anti-Semitic, and 20 percent contained anti-Islamic content.

Cohen and Levy tout their technology — which has commercial applications — as an unbiased measure of online hatred, because their software does not know the identity or source of the information it is analyzing. Nor does it rely on asking survey questions, which, Cohen and Levy argue, are inherently biased. It’s a good addition to the knowledge of hatred on the Web, says Brian Marcus, director of Internet monitoring at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) (adl.org), but it is only as good as what it can search. Currently, Cohen and Levy’s software can only scan in English, a severe limitation considering a large amount of hateful rhetoric may be in other languages. Nor can the GHI search the "closed," or password-protected, sites that many hate groups use. "The technology is neutral," says Marcus, "but what they are searching would determine the results."

Despite these limitations, David Rosenthal, a Zurich-based expert on hate crimes, calls the GHI a "small step" in the right direction. Although the GHI is not a cure-all, you can’t fight hate if you don’t find it first.

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