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Professors Culotta and Hemphill Study Cyberbullying in Nayar Prize Project

Last fall, Aron Culotta, assistant professor of computer science, and Libby Hemphill, associate professor of communication and information studies, began work on a project about cyberbullying entitled “Cyberbullying Early Warning and Response System.” Their project is part of the Nayar Prize, which is a $1 million-plus prize package established to encourage and challenge Illinois Tech faculty, staff, and students to develop breakthrough, innovative projects that will, within three years, produce meaningful results with a societal impact.

Cyberbullying is a widespread public health issue affecting roughly a third of teenage Internet users and often resulting in serious consequences such as physical violence, depression, and substance abuse. In their project, Culotta and Hemphill are building a natural language processing algorithm to mine Instagram comments in order to forecast imminent cyberbullying threats and vulnerabilities. The software tool they develop will allow for individuals and communities to be better equipped to intervene in cyberbullying in real-time to reduce harm and improve outcomes. They plan to partner with local high schools to test the effectiveness of their project.

Of his work on this project, Culotta said, “I was drawn to this research topic both because of the technical challenge of designing algorithms to understand nuanced language patterns and also because of the societal importance of preventing online harassment. Unlike traditional bullying, cyerbullying can't be avoided by walking away; our digital lives follow us home.”

Culotta and Hemphill have worked on previous research together, including a project where they analyzed how members of congress use Twitter. They developed a method to estimate how "polarized" a hashtag, topic, or member of congress was based on tweets.