Three teens from Mississauga, ON composed one of the four teams to win the Hack against Hate Hackathon for their AI-powered bot that filters harmful content on social networking platforms.
Hosted by the DMZ and Penny Appeal Canada, Hack against Hate is a four-day national competition where Canadians aged 15-29 are invited to create a prototype for a digital solution that stops hate crimes, in an effort to make online platforms safer.
Executives of the computer club at Lorne Park Secondary School grade 12 student Harshul Gupta, grade 11 student Arya Peruma, and grade 10 student Peter Lee heard about the competition through their computer science teacher.
What is PROtectABot?
Their creation, PROtectABot, filters out hate speech on video and text communication platform, Discord.
“Discord was one of my most used applications in terms of connecting with people, just because there was a lot of stuff happening for school or other things on there. So that’s sort of how I got the idea of trying to fight things like micro-aggressions in a text-based manner,” Gupta said.
The group decided to choose Discord as their main focus as they felt the program didn’t have any “special function” that stops hate speech from spreading.
“You can send whatever you want and nothing really happens to you. We wanted to stop that and create a function that doesn’t allow hate to be spread on Discord,” said Lee.
To create the program, the group used Python programming language for the bot itself and the Discord.py library which, according to Gupta, is a popular library for making Discord bots.
PROtectABot doesn’t just filter out hate, it also focuses on the issue of misinformation.
“We wanted to tackle misinformation as well. Which is also what our bot can do,” Peruma said.
She added that based on links that people send into their server, they were able to flag them and check how reliable the source is as well is identify any biases.
As of now, PROtectABot’s main focus is Discord, but it can be expanded to different applications such as Slack and Google Hangouts.
An increase of hate crime in Canada
Penny Appeal, a relief and development organization, partnered with DMZ to launch the hackathon following the sudden increase in hate crime across the country over the past year, according to Mark Strong, community ambassador for Penny Appeal.
“The rise of hate crimes in Canada, not just in the past few years, though it has been intensified in the past few years, has been around for decades… we found it really important to recognize that these crimes are taking place within our borders,” Strong said.
Hate crimes, such as the London, ON attack against a Muslim family that resulted in the death of four family members after a man struck them with a car while they were on a walk, is what really highlighted the fact that something needed to be done, according to Strong.
Following the attack, the DMZ and Penny Appeal Canada decided to team up and get a younger audience involved in catching hate speech online.
The accused in both the London, ON attack as well as in the more recent Michigan school shooting displayed strange behaviour online or were inspired by other attacks prior to committing the crimes. A program such a PROtectABot could potentially read and find hate speech on platforms and then alert authorities, which could prevent further hate crimes from happening in the future.
“We have to recognize that we live in a digital world, we live in an online world and that world is moving very fast, but it’s also allowing hatred to find its way in,” Strong said.
A youth-based program such as Hack against Hate is also timely, as reports reveal that social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram are affecting the mental health of younger people.
“Particularly in that age range, a lot of the 15 to 19 year-olds are heavily dependent or reliant, and continuously online,” Strong said.
Hard work pays off
For their hard work, each winning team was rewarded CA$5000, and the group of three all have different ideas on how they want to spend their winnings.
While Gupta and Peruma are still in the process of registering their accomplishment and looking to save their money, Lee is ready to spend some of it.
“I’m probably gonna buy some guitar stuff because I play guitar and I also might buy some clothes. I have a Raspberry Pi (a tiny computer) and I want to buy some parts to create some product,” Lee said.