FEATURE13 March 2023

Fear and loathing: Tracking threatening language online

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Threatening language is prevalent across the internet, so researchers have developed a ‘threat dictionary’ to track its impact on those exposed to it. By Liam Kay.

close up photo of a mobile phone screen with social media icons and a thumb about to press one

The world feels increasingly unstable as the years roll by. A pandemic, the war in Ukraine and an increasingly toxic political environment are just some of the factors that have raised anxiety levels and decreased optimism across large swathes of the population. Portents of doom abound online, decrying the latest supposed threat to humanity.

What is the cumulative impact of this torrent of bad news? Does it change people’s outlook on life, society, their fellow human beings and country? One recent study by researchers at the University of Maryland and Stanford University looked to understand the implications of threats broadcast through mass communication channels in the media and online. They used a computational linguistic tool to index threat levels from text, allowing the researchers to examine how the prevalence of threatening language in the media over the past century has impacted cultural, political and economic shifts.

Michele Gelfand, professor in cross-cultural management and of organisational behaviour at Stanford University, and one of four lead ...