Project Figleaf awarded funding in AI partnership

Tuesday, November 1, 2022
Project Figleaf logo eaturing a megaphone with a figleaf coming out to suggest the amplification of this device online

Interdisciplinary collaborators from Philosophy and the Stratford School have been awarded funding from artificial intelligence company Logically to tackle the spread of hate speech and disinformation on social media.

Project Figleaf is co-led by Jennifer Saul, a scholar in philosophy of language, and Raymond Drainville, a social media scholar. The project aims to examine an important mechanism that hasn’t been examined before: the figleaf.

As the name implies, figleaves are little additions that can help cover up hate speech and make remarks more acceptable. For instance, “I’m just asking questions” or “Lots of people are saying..” can make audiences more comfortable with what’s been said, and make it less obvious that something is racist or false.

Saul, who originated the figleaf concept, says “Figleaves, I argue, have played an especially important role in changing norms around what counts as acceptable political discourse. Ten years ago, saying that Jewish space lasers cause forest fires would have been a career-ender for a national politician of any major party. Now it's not.  One reason that wild conspiracy theories have been able to spread so successfully, I think, is that people are much more comfortable sharing them when accompanied by a figleaf like ‘I’m just asking questions’. Questioning can seem reasonable and open-minded.”

Her forthcoming book with Oxford University Press, Dogwhistles and Figleaves, examines these and other mechanisms that allow racism and wild conspiracism to spread and flourish.

Previous studies have looked at the ways conspiracist and racist ideas spread online, but this is the first study into the role that figleaves play. Launching November 1, the project aims to lay the groundwork to develop effective techniques to combat this tactic.

“We are very excited to carry out the first-ever investigation of the use of figleaves on social media,” says Drainville, co-principal investigator.  “This wouldn’t be possible without Logically, and we can’t wait to get started on this important work.” 

Drainville studies the spread and understanding of images on social media, using large data sets.  He has worked in particular on images of protest and refugees, and on political manipulation. He and Saul will be joined in this project by postdoctoral researcher Lori Young, a scholar of political speech.

Founded in 2017 by MIT and Cambridge alumnus Lyric Jain, Logically combines advanced AI with human intelligence and expertise to tackle harmful and problematic online content, including mis- and dis-information. The partnerships – each in a different part of the world – aim to further understand and improve solutions to the challenges of mis-and disinformation and online hate.

Jennifer Saul standing in a corridor beneath an old fashioned sign that says Arguments Yard

Jennifer Saul, Waterloo Chair in Social and Political Philosophy of Language

Ray Drainville

Ray Drainville, Stratford School of Interaction Design and Business