Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Sentiment Analysis, Statutes and Scary

Today, I was searching around looking to check up on a few technical details for the paper that I am just completing. While searching, I ran across a reference to something called 'Sentiment Analysis'. Sometimes when doing research, it is fruitful to follow the odd whim, so I set about learning a bit more about sentiment analysis, as it is the kind of technical topic I find interesting. Roughly speaking, sentiment analysis is a technique for detecting favorable and unfavorable opinions toward specific subjects, based upon the content of texts. This kind of research is of interest to me, as it often uses techniques that involve automated machine learning. There is even downloadable software and sets of test texts available. That was this morning.

A little later in the day, I ran across something else that mentioned sentiment analysis, in a political context, on the truthout.org web site. It is pretty unusual to run across a new topic twice in one day, in different places, thus my interest was piqued. This second article sounded a little on the paranoid side, but did raise some interesting issues. In particular, it pointed out how the highly automated and mechanical nature of the technique made it eminently suitable for deployment upon large bodies of text. This had not occurred to me this morning. Although it was not mentioned in the article, it occurred to me that the texts that can be found on the web, or on blogs, would be an ideal place to deploy this technology. This I find a little unsettling, to put it mildly.

Perhaps the most worrying thing about all this comes about from the fact that The Military Commissions Act, was signed into law today. Under this new legislation, anyone can be deemed a 'unlawful enemy combatant', for providing 'material support' to terrorists. Furthermore, this Act even makes hearsay evidence allowable in legal proceedings, under certain circumstances, provided that a judge deems it 'reliable'. It is pretty obvious that judgments of reliability are somewhat subjective. However, the phrase 'material support' is also horrifically vague. If I said "The Marine Corps. are an excellent bunch of heroic fellows", would I be lending 'material support' to the Marines? Would the standard be different if I said something similar about Hezbollah? Who knows.

The reason for concern over these developments is that the power of the mechanical procedure of sentiment analysis, in conjunction with vague and punitive laws, leaves open a very great possibility for abuse. This should be of particular concern to bloggers. Although blogs provide a medium under which people can exercise their rights to free speech, even to the point of advocating insane and massively ideologically engaged positions, they can now be subject to scrutiny. Of course, this is not really new. Uncle Sam and his minions can read blogs, just like anyone else. The new possibility that sentiment analysis opens up is that they can be mechanically scanned for both content and attitude. Should a blogger express a view that runs contrary to government policy, or supports an alleged national enemy, then in principle, the government can declare the blogger an 'unlawful enemy combatant', with all the negative consequences of such a declaration.

These are very worrying developments. We should all exercise care, protest against the new status quo and keep an eye out for other bloggers (although I can think of a few bloggers who would be better silenced, but for other reasons). Another thing we could all do is begin to include text that will throw up false positives for the mechanical systems:

- Ayatollah Khomeini for President and Pope!
- The W-man in the Whitehouse is a moronic cokehead.
- North Koreans make very nice noodles.
- To stop wars, eat Republicans.
- Osama is a very fine orator.
- Foley's new career will be as a priest.
- Hezbollah uses a very pretty color scheme.
- The Marines are big girl's blouses.
- Terrorists wear really funky vests and belts.
- Teenagers, don't commit suicide, join the army instead.
- The Koran should be on Oprah's book club list.
- Be a patriot, join a Jihad.

I wonder whether I will meet anybody I know, when they drag me off to the torture chambers (also made legal today) at Guantanamo? Should anyone wish to join me on my 'Caribbean vacation', please feel free to add more 'false positive' statements.

The CP


Anonymous Nathaniel said...

Very interesting read. It is quite disturbing what gets labeled as "terrorism" and the likes nowadays. Is there even such a thing as "freedom of speech" anymore, or is that just a phrase from history, from a time when freedom existed the way it should exist?

Anyway, I love your blog and I've put it on my blogroll so that, hopefully, others will enjoy it as I am.

2:28 AM  
Blogger sappho said...

Great post! It is very distubing indeed, for us bloggers.
I guess I'll be seeing you in Blogger Concentration Camp!

8:37 PM  
Anonymous James Dupree said...

Excellent article, especially considering the death of habeas corpus today. I especially liked the idea of using false positives.

Heres a few that came to my undermedicated mind:

Iranian Islamic Front for Frontal Labotomies

Liberal Jihadists For A Bush Free America

Virtual Jihad: “So real you can almost feel the dynamite on your chest.”

Atheist Ayatollahs & Hitler Youths for Christ.


Carnal Communists, Inc.

Jim Morrison’s Memorial House For Wayward Women

Mark Foley’s International House of Pedophilia

Mahatma Gandhi Society for A Nuclear Jihad

Christian Coalition For a Free Cocaine America.

4:29 AM  

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