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US trip for Canterbury student tackling hate speech

10 July 2024

Research on how to use artificial intelligence (AI) to detect hate speech on social media has landed a PhD student a prestigious international scholarship.

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Photo caption: University of Canterbury Linguistics PhD student Sidney Wong celebrated his scholarship award with his family at a Fulbright New Zealand ceremony in Wellington. 

Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury (UC) Linguistics PhD student Sidney Wong is one of 15 recipients of this year’s Fulbright New Zealand Graduate Awards. 

The Fulbright Science and Innovation Graduate award will see Wong travel to the United States in August to advance his research at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in Illinois.

His project involves harnessing natural language processing - a branch of AI that enables computers to understand, generate, and manipulate human language – to detect hate speech on social media. He also plans to investigate the suitability of current hate speech detection systems. 

His interest in this area was sparked by his role as a community advocate for diverse and marginalised groups. 

“In both my roles as a researcher and as an advocate embedded as co-chair of the Ōtautahi-based Qtopia and chair of the Ethnic Rainbow Alliance, I see an urgent need to monitor the proliferation of hate speech,” he says. 

“With these insights, we can work together with communities, policy makers, and researchers to develop prevention strategies to ensure the safety of our communities.”

Wong, who lives in Ōtautahi Christchurch, was born in Lower Hutt and has Cantonese ancestry. 

“When I reflect on my identity, it has undoubtedly been influenced by my experience of previously being ‘in the closet’ as a person who is both an ethnic minority and part of the Rainbow community in Aotearoa,” he says. 

In the wake of the Christchurch mosque attacks there has been an increased awareness of the role of digital communities in spreading misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech towards marginalised people, Wong says.

His research uses AI tools to investigate the formation of these digital groups on social media with a focus on hate speech. 

“As a computational sociolinguist, I study the relationship between language and society. By determining how these digital communities develop, we can also pinpoint the motivators of hateful behaviour.” 

Receiving the scholarship is a “surreal” opportunity to develop himself academically and professionally and showcase the “incredible” linguistics research happening in Aotearoa, he says. 

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is home to one of the largest Linguistic departments in the United States and Wong will be working alongside Associate Professor Dr Jonathan Dunn, an expert in computational linguistics and natural language processing who was previously a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Linguistics at UC. 

While Wong is the only current UC student to receive a Fulbright NZ Graduate Award this year, there are several UC graduates among the other recipients. 

Felicity Powell, who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 2016, will use her award to complete a Master’s in Education at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

Michelle Meaclem, who graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering (Hons) from UC in 2017, will complete a Master in Public Policy at Harvard University in Boston. 

Meg Porteous (Ngāti Maniapoto), who graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography from UC in 2013 will undertake a Master of Fine Arts in Film Directing at the University of California, Los Angeles.

sdg 16 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 - Peace, justice and institutions.

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