Yeah, Secret Service, Like That’s Gonna Happen

The agency is looking for an intrepid software developer to create a sarcasm detector for social media. Mary Beth Quirk sums it up thus:

Basically, the Secret Service would love it if someone would explain the Internet so it doesn’t go around arresting sarcastic people with itchy social media trigger fingers.

Another thing that sounds a bit weird?

The software will have the “functionality to send notifications to users.” Because that wouldn’t freak someone out to get a popup window from the Secret Service just being like, “Hey, did you mean that like, for real? Or are you being sarcastic? Thanks, juuust checking in!”

But Jesse Singal doubts they’ll come up with anything:

One study from 2011 (PDF) used tweets that had been specifically hashtagged #sarcasm or #sarcastic, stripped those hashtags, and then dumped them into a virtual pile with a bunch of other straightforwardly positive and negative tweets. At their best performance, the computer programs the researchers used could only correctly separate sarcastic from non-sarcastic tweets about 65 percent of the time — and this was in a rather controlled setting.

Bing Liu, a University of Illinois at Chicago computer scientist who authored a book about sentiment analysis (that is, extracting emotional context from text), expressed skepticism that anyone yet has a good handle on this problem. “I am not aware that anyone has a satisfactory algorithm or system that can detect sarcastic sentences,” he said in an email. And the stuff the Secret Service would be looking at would be a particularly uphill battle: “In discussions about politics [sarcasm] is fairly common and very hard to deal with because it often requires some background knowledge which computers are not good at.”