The linguistic clues that reveal your true Twitter identity

An emerging field of research is making it easier to track perpetrators by looking at the way they use language when they chat.

Twitter is awash with trolls, spammers and misanthropes, all keen to ruin your day with a mean-spirited message or even a threat that can cause you genuine fear. It seems all too easy to set up an account and cause trouble anonymously, but an emerging field of research is making it easier to track perpetrators by looking at the way they use language when they chat.

The first Twitter criminal?
The #TwitterJokeTrial was an early, if unfortunate, example of an apparent Twitter crime. Paul Chambers, frustrated at being prevented from visiting his girlfriend when snow disrupted transport, tweeted:

“Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!”

Chambers was at first prosecuted for sending a message of “menacing character”, but he later raised a successful appeal against his conviction. The message was nevertheless clear: be careful what you write, either be nice or be anonymous.

Anonymous virtue?
We’ve learned from these incidents that if you want to say something controversial or aggressive on Twitter, you’d probably better do it from an account not tied to your real name.

The perceived anonymity of Twitter trolls seemed to facilitate the trolling attacks experienced by Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy MP this summer. Criado-Perez and Creasy had been running a campaign to have a woman represented on UK bank notes, and so became subject to a vitriolic misogynist attack, all via the medium of Twitter. In this case, policing has led to arrests, despite the fact that trolls opened multiple accounts to hide their identities when conducting their attacks.

There are however many examples of others who have managed to remain anonymous, escaping prosecution for abusive threatening tweets. Technological anonymity is all too easy to achieve. On the 22nd of October Laurie Penny reported on Twitter that she had "just been informed UK police cannot track down those who sent bomb threats to female journalists this summer, because of Tor".

The Tor Project is a free online network which facilitates anonymity by creating a complex relay of the message through potentially thousands of servers. It thus makes any attempt to identify the origin of a message near impossible.

Linguistic clues
Luckily, such attempts at anonymity are not always successful. All the technology in the world can’t stop you from leaving a trail behind you when you broadcast your thoughts online or via text message. We all have individual writing styles and habits that build to create a linguistic identity.

Forensic linguistic experts can penetrate technological anonymity by interrogating the linguistic clues that you leave as you write. Everything from the way someone uses capitalisation or personal pronouns, to the words someone typically omits or includes, to a breakdown of average word or sentence length, can help identify the writer of even a short text like a Tweet or text message.

Forensic linguistics is a growing field, partially because the increasing importance of online communications in our daily lives demands it.

The technique was used, for example, in a 2009 murder trial in Stoke on Trent, to build a case against a man who had murdered his wife and attempted to cover his tracks by sending text messages from her phone. He sent messages to himself and others to make it look like his wife was still alive on the day he had killed her but the way they were written gave him away.

Forensic linguists have also contributed expertise in cases of rape, blackmail, mistaken identity, extortion, and the multiple identities of online paedophiles.

Moral grey area
In criminal investigations forensic linguists are seen to be on the side of justice, but the field clearly contains a moral peril. Just as we can develop techniques that target online paedophiles or use methods to discover those who attacked Criado-Perez and Creasy, so these same techniques can be used against those whom we might ethically want to protect.

For instance, forensic linguistic techniques could identify an anonymous blogger campaigning against an oppressive regime, or an environmental activist who is being inconvenient to government plans. Individual forensic linguists might take a principled stand in one case or another but others might not agree with their moral choices.

This is of particular concern as these techniques become automated. Authorship analysis technologies can of course be sold to anyone who can afford them and can be used for whatever purpose they like.

In the future, we may even see a technological arms race between those attacking and those defending anonymity.

New ways to hide
If online anonymity can be compromised by textual analysis it may seem that your only option is to play nice online. But now there is an alternative and it’s increasingly popular.

Facebook numbers amongst teenagers are falling and Twitter numbers may follow. The kids today are turning to SnapChat and other similar services, which allow content to be shared but not stored. Apparently aware of the appeal, Facebook reportedly tried to buy SnapChat for $3bn recently.

However, these ephemeral messaging services won’t only be attractive to teenagers. Networks of online criminals are already using them. It’s a return to the old days: like a whispered conversation in a dark corner of a pub, eavesdropping is more difficult and the message expires without a trace. Or so SnapChat claims. Either way, as with the creation of Twitter, this new development will no doubt create new criminal, legal and ethical challenges for forensic linguists and the wider public to grapple with.

Tim Grant does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.The Conversation

It can be important to think before tweeting. (Image: Kooroshication/Flickr)
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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition