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Abstract and Figures

Cyberbullying and cyberaggression are increasingly worrisome phenomena affecting people across all demographics. More than half of young social media users worldwide have been exposed to such prolonged and/or coordinated digital harassment. Victims can experience a wide range of emotions, with negative consequences such as embarrassment, depression, isolation from other community members, which embed the risk to lead to even more critical consequences, such as suicide attempts. In this work, we take the first concrete steps to understand the characteristics of abusive behavior in Twitter, one of today's largest social media platforms. We analyze 1.2 million users and 2.1 million tweets, comparing users participating in discussions around seemingly normal topics like the NBA, to those more likely to be hate-related, such as the Gamergate controversy, or the gender pay inequality at the BBC station. We also explore specific manifestations of abusive behavior, i.e., cyberbullying and cyberaggression, in one of the hate-related communities (Gamergate). We present a robust methodology to distinguish bullies and aggressors from normal Twitter users by considering text, user, and network-based attributes. Using various state-of-the-art machine learning algorithms, we classify these accounts with over 90% accuracy and AUC. Finally, we discuss the current status of Twitter user accounts marked as abusive by our methodology, and study the performance of potential mechanisms that can be used by Twitter to suspend users in the future.
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Detecting Cyberbullying and Cyberaggression in Social Media
Despoina Chatzakou1, Ilias Leontiadis2, Jeremy Blackburn3, Emiliano De Cristofaro4,
Gianluca Stringhini5, Athena Vakali6, and Nicolas Kourtellis7
1Center for Research and Technology Hellas, 2Samsung AI, 3SUNY Binghamton,
4UCL, 5Boston University, 6Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, 7Telefonica Research
Cyberbullying and cyberaggression are increasingly worri-
some phenomena affecting people across all demographics.
More than half of young social media users worldwide have
been exposed to such prolonged and/or coordinated digital ha-
rassment. Victims can experience a wide range of emotions,
with negative consequences such as embarrassment, depres-
sion, isolation from other community members, which embed
the risk to lead to even more critical consequences, such as
suicide attempts.
In this work, we take the first concrete steps to understand
the characteristics of abusive behavior in Twitter, one of to-
day’s largest social media platforms. We analyze 1.2million
users and 2.1million tweets, comparing users participating
in discussions around seemingly normal topics like the NBA,
to those more likely to be hate-related, such as the Gamer-
gate controversy, or the gender pay inequality at the BBC sta-
tion. We also explore specific manifestations of abusive be-
havior, i.e., cyberbullying and cyberaggression, in one of the
hate-related communities (Gamergate). We present a robust
methodology to distinguish bullies and aggressors from nor-
mal Twitter users by considering text, user, and network-based
attributes. Using various state-of-the-art machine learning al-
gorithms, we classify these accounts with over 90% accuracy
and AUC. Finally, we discuss the current status of Twitter user
accounts marked as abusive by our methodology, and study
the performance of potential mechanisms that can be used by
Twitter to suspend users in the future.
1 Introduction
In today’s digital society, cyberbullying and cyberaggression
are serious and widespread issues affecting an increasingly
high number of Internet users, mostly at their sensitive teen
and young age. In a way, while physical bullying is somewhat
limited to particular places or times of the day (e.g., school
hours), its digital counterpart can instead occur anytime, any-
where, with just a few taps on a keyboard. Cyberbullying and
cyberaggression can take many forms; there is no generally
accepted definition, and cyberaggression is often considered a
form of cyberbullying [37,82,92]. Overall, the former typ-
This is an extended work of the authors’ prior publications presented
in [12], [13], and [15]. Work done while the 1st author was with the Aris-
totle University of Thessaloniki.
ically denotes repeated and hostile behavior performed by a
group or an individual, while the latter intentional harm de-
livered via electronic means to a person or a group of people
who perceive such acts as offensive, derogatory, harmful, or
unwanted [37]. Similar to bullying in face-to-face social inter-
actions, two main characteristics indicative of cyberbullying
behavior are the repetition intensity over time and the power
imbalance between the victims and the bullies.
Cyberbullying was not taken seriously in the early Web era:
the typical advice was to “just turn off the screen” or “discon-
nect” your device [62]. However, as Web’s proliferation and
the extent of its consequences reached epidemic levels [23],
such behavior can no longer be ignored; in 2017, based on a
survey conducted from the Pew Research Center [70], 41% of
Americans have been personally subjected to harassing behav-
ior online, while 66% have witnessed these behaviors directed
at others. Furthermore, about 50% of young social media users
reported being bullied online in various forms [86]. Overall,
27% of students report being cyberbullied at some point in
their lifetimes [24]. Even more worrisome is that 15% of high
school students of in grades 9 to 12, and 9% of students in
grades 6 to 12, have experienced cyberbullying.
1.1 Challenges
These concerns motivate the demand to design methods and
tools for early detection and prevention of such abusive behav-
ior, especially as it evolves in social media platforms. Many
complexities are involved in developing efficient and effective
methods for detecting such online phenomena, due to the: (i)
heterogeneity of users with respect to their culture norms and
their demographics, (ii) transient nature of the problem (such
phenomena are unpredictable and they may spike or stop un-
expectedly), (iii) anonymity capability offered in social me-
dia which may ease bullies to launch attacks without fearing
consequences, and (iv) multiple aggression and bullying forms
beyond just obviously abusive language (e.g., via constant sar-
casm and trolling).
Such strong challenges hinder the effective design of auto-
matic detection methods. However in this paper, we address
most of these difficulties by an effective approach focused on
Twitter, which presents some characteristics posing even addi-
tional difficulties w.r.t. cyberbullying and cyberaggression pre-
vention. These difficulties are due to: (a) non formal content,
since tweets source is a short text often full of grammar and
arXiv:1907.08873v1 [cs.SI] 20 Jul 2019
syntactic flaws, making it harder to rely on natural language
processing methods to extract text-based attributes and char-
acterize user interactions; (b) the provision of fairly limited
context in each tweet, thus, taken on its own, an aggressive
tweet may be disregarded as normal text, whereas, read along
with other tweets, either from the same user or in the context
of aggressive behavior from multiple users, the same tweet
could be characterized as bullying, (c) spam accounts inten-
sity since despite extensive work on spam detection in social
media [36,87,98], Twitter is still full of spam accounts [20],
often using vulgar language and exhibiting behavior (repeated
posts with similar content, mentions, or hashtags) that could
also be considered as aggressive or bullying actions.
In particular, in this paper we identify and address the fol-
lowing open research questions:
RQ1: What characteristics differentiate abusive from
normal users based on their activity on diverse Twitter
RQ2: Can we design a machine learning methodology
to automatically and effectively detect such abusive be-
havior and users?
RQ3: How has Twitter addressed the problem of abu-
sive users in its platform? What are the characteristics
of users who were suspended? Can we approximate this
suspension mechanism?
This study builds upon our previous work on detecting abu-
sive behavior on Twitter [15,13,12]. These works laid the
foundations for gaining an initial understanding of what abu-
sive activity looks like on Twitter, by comparing the posts
and users of a hate-related community vs. randomly selected
users. Furthermore, past works investigated the core differ-
ences among distinct user categories (i.e., bullies, aggressors,
spam, and normal users), as well as the behavioral patterns of
abusive vs. normal users in relation to Twitter’s statuses (i.e.,
deleted and suspended).
1.2 Contributions
Overall, this paper makes the following contributions:
RQ1: We examine the behavior of users participating in
different types of groups, from well-established and popular
communities discussing general issues and topics (like NBA),
to more hate-related, but still well organized, communities that
focus on specific issues (like the Gamergate controversy [59]).
We also consider communities that are newer and less orga-
nized, and focus on trending topics like gender inequality in
salaries. We investigate a set of attributes for the users in these
communities, and how all such extracted attributes are asso-
ciated with abusive behavioral patterns. In fact, the study is
performed in relation to activity and emotional properties of
these communities and users, providing a better conceptual-
ization of abusive behavior on Twitter.
RQ2: We use the learnings of this investigation to inform
a methodology able to distinguish abusive users (i.e., bullies
and aggressors) from the normal. To automatically detect abu-
sive users, we build a ground truth dataset, and train and test
machine learning methods, from more traditional classifiers to
deep neural networks, based on a wide variety of behavioral
RQ3: We study in more depth the Twitter suspension mech-
anism, in relation to the observed users’ behavioral patterns,
testing at the same time whether we can emulate Twitter’s sus-
pension mechanism using typical machine learning methods.
1.3 Roadmap
We start, in Section 2, with an overview of the datasets used
in the paper, as well as the steps taken for the data collection
and preprocessing. Specifically, for the data collection we rely
on the Twitter social media platform and its streaming API.
The preprocessing step consists of both cleaning of texts (e.g.,
removal of stop words and punctuation marks), as well as spam
content removal. Then, in Section 3, we analyze the behav-
ioral patterns exhibited by users involved in different commu-
nities (i.e., Gamergate, NBA, and BBCpay), and what differ-
entiates them from the baseline (random) users. The analysis
is performed on a set of activity attributes (e.g., number of
posted tweets, number of followers and friends, account age)
and emotional attributes (e.g., sentiment and emotions). The
objective of such an analysis is to understand better the char-
acteristic ways in which users from diverse communities act.
Section 4presents the process followed to create a ground-
truth dataset suitable for distinguishing among bullies, aggres-
sors, spammers, and normal users. Since analyzing single
tweets does not provide enough context to discern if a user
is behaving in an aggressive or bullying way, we group tweets
from the same user, based on time clusters, into sessions. This
allows us to analyze contents of sessions rather than single
tweets. Thus, based on the sessionized tweets, we build ground
truth (needed for machine learning classification, as explained
next) using human annotators. For the building of ground
truth, we use a crowdsourced approach by recruiting work-
ers who are provided with a set of tweets from a user, and are
asked to classify them according to the previously mentioned
four labels.
Section 5discusses a set of 38 features extracted from the
annotated dataset against the four classes of users considered.
These features are extracted from both tweets and user pro-
files. More specifically, we extract user-, text-, and network-
based features such as the number of followers, tweets, hash-
tags, etc. This analysis helps us select appropriate features to
speed up the training of the machine learning model, and im-
prove its quality [54]. Based on this analysis, we focus on the
attributes that help distinguish better the considered user cate-
gories, and can be fed into the classification process. In con-
trast to the previous sections (Sections 3and 4) where the anal-
ysis is conducted on tweet-level, in Sections 5and 6the anal-
ysis is performed on user-level, i.e., the ground truth dataset is
used where we group tweets under the same user.
Section 6presents the classification process, that is, the ma-
chine learning techniques used to model and predict online
bullying and aggressive user behavior. The classification pro-
cess is performed using the aforementioned attributes and the
created ground truth dataset. Four classification setups are
Period Tweets #Users Size (cleaned) Users (cleaned) Sections
Baseline June-August 2016 1M610k70% 73% 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Gamergate June-August 2016 600k312k69% 58% 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
NBA July 2017 400k202k57% 66% 3, 7.1, 7.2
BBC gender pay July 2017 100k64k69% 75% 3, 7.1, 7.2
Table 1: An overview of our datasets, with number of tweets, users involved, collection period, and where in the paper each dataset was used.
tested to assess the feasibility of detecting abusive behavior
on Twitter: (i) detecting bullies and aggressors out of spam
and normal users, (ii) detecting bullies, aggressors, and nor-
mal users - having eliminated spammers from our dataset, (iii)
distinguishing offensive users overall, by assuming that bul-
lying and aggression is a united, abusive behavior, and (iv)
distinguishing offensive users from normal after eliminating
spammers from our dataset.
In Section 7, we present an analysis of the users’ account
status on Twitter, and compare this status with the labels pro-
vided by the annotators. Furthermore, and building on our
knowledge of features extracted from tweets and user profiles,
we build a new machine learning method based on similar fea-
tures presented earlier; this method attempts to emulate the
Twitter suspension mechanism. We discuss our classification
results, and recent efforts performed by Twitter to eliminate
abusive behavior from the platform.
In Section 8, we review the related work, and provide a dis-
cussion on how the present manuscript contributes to the state-
of-art. Finally, we conclude in Section 9with a set of learnings
and extended discussion.
2 Datasets
For this study, we gathered texts from a highly popular so-
cial media platform, i.e., Twitter, which is comprised of more
than 300Mconnected users on a monthly basis [85] and sup-
ports the daily broadcasting of short burst posts (i.e., tweets)
to the online community. More specifically, we rely on Twit-
ter’s Streaming API which provides free access to 1% of all
tweets. The API returns each tweet in a JSON format, with the
content of the tweet, some metadata, such as creation time and
whether it is a reply or a retweet, as well as information about
the poster, such as username, followers, friends, and number
of total posted tweets.
Overall, two types of data were gathered: (i) two datasets
that are more prone to contain abuse and hate-related cases,
with 700ktweets in total (i.e., Gamergate: 600k, BBCpay:
100k), and (ii) two datasets which are expected to be of more
“normal” behavior, with a total of 1.4Mtweets (i.e., NBA:
400k, baseline: 1M). The gathering of two abusive related
datasets is made in order to ensure that the used method for
detecting online abusive cases is generalizable and does not
only apply at a specific topic under investigation. The selection
of a less hate-related, but still very popular, topic (i.e., NBA)
was made to test whether the hate-related attributes are signif-
icantly related or not with any popular online topic on Twitter,
and not just to the abusive-related topics. Table 1provides
an overview of the datasets used in this paper (the ‘cleaned’
columns indicate the percentage of tweets and users remained
after the data preprocessing - see Section 2.2, while the ‘ref-
erence sections’ column indicates which datasets were used in
each section).
Sections 2.1 and 2.2 summarize all fundamental con-
cepts and processes required for creating the aforementioned
datasets, with an emphasis on the data collection and prepro-
cessing, respectively. Finally, Section 2.3 overviews the col-
lected data by analyzing the users’ posting behavior, as well as
the discussed topics.
2.1 Data Collection
To create an abuse-related dataset, i.e., a dataset which con-
tains abusive behaviors with high probability, previous works
rely on a number of (seed) words which are highly related with
the manifestation of abusive/aggressive events. In this sense,
next we present a step-by-step process which can be followed
to ensure that the collected data will contain an adequate num-
ber of abusive cases.
Seed keyword(s). The first step is to manually select one or
more seed keywords, which are likely related to the occurrence
of abusive incidents. Good examples are the #GamerGate,
#BlackLivesMatter, and #PizzaGate. In addition to such seed
words, a set of hate- or curse-related words can also be used,
e.g., words manually extracted from the Hatebase database
(HB) [42], to start collecting possible abusive texts from so-
cial media sources. Therefore, at time t1, the list of words to be
used for filtering posted texts includes only the seed word(s),
i.e., L(t1) =< seed(s)>.
In our case, we focus on Twitter for the data collection pro-
cess. So, initially we obtain the sample public tweets and parse
them to select all tweets containing the seed word depending
on the dataset to be built. More specifically, for the dataset
built around the Gamergate controversy, the #GamerGate was
used as a seed word, for the BBC gender pay controversy
related dataset the #BBCpay, while for the NBA dataset the
#NBA. Such hashtags serve as seeds for an automatic snow-
ball sampling of other hashtags likely associated with abusive
Dynamic list of keywords. In addition to the seed keyword(s),
further filtering keywords can be used to select abusive-related
content. The list of the additional keywords can be updated
dynamically in consecutive time intervals based on the posted
texts during these intervals. Definition 2.1 shows the state of
the keyword list, L(ti), at a specific time interval, ti. Depend-
ing on the topic under examination, i.e., if it is a popular topic
or not, the creation of the dynamic keywords list can be split
to different consecutive time intervals.
Definition 2.1. Keywords list. In time instances tiwithin the
set T={t1, t2, ..., tn}, and assuming a list of seed words
seed(s), the keywords list L(ti)equals to:
L(ti) =< seed(s), kw1, kw2, k wN>,
where kwjis the jth top keyword in time period T=ti
To maintain the dynamic list of keywords for the time pe-
riod ti1ti, we should investigate the texts posted in this
time period. The Nkeywords that were found during that time
should be extracted, to compute then their frequency and rank
them into a temporary list LT (ti). So, then the dynamic list
is adjusted L(ti)with entries from the temporary list LT (ti)
to create a new dynamic list that contains the up-to-date top N
keywords along with the seed words. This new list is used in
the next time period titi+1 for the filtering of posted text.
Such process can be followed until an adequate number of in-
stances has been collected. The dynamic list can be updated
automatically (i.e., without any manual inspection process to
be involved) following the above described process. The full
list of tags will be made available upon request.
Here, we include tweets with hashtags appearing in the same
tweets as #GamerGate, #BBCpay, and #NBA depending on
the dataset under consideration. For the Gamergate contro-
versy we reach 308 hashtags during the data collection period,
where a manual examination of these hashtags reveals that
they do contain a number of hate words, e.g., #Internation-
alOffendAFeministDay, #IStandWithHateSpeech, and #Kil-
lAllNiggers. For the BBC gender pay controversy the dynamic
list of keywords is comprised of 113 hashtags, where indica-
tive included hashtags are the following: #equalityforall, #gen-
derpaygap, #greedy. Finally, for the NBA dataset we reach 526
hashtags, with the following to be some indicative examples:
#basketball, #jordan, and #lakers.
2.2 Data Preprocessing
In order to proceed with the content analysis of the collected
datasets, a set of preprocessing tasks takes place, i.e., cleaning
and spam removal to conclude with less noisy datasets.
Cleaning. The first step is to clean the data of noise, i.e.,
removing numbers, stop words, and punctuations, as well as
converting all characters to lower case.
Removing spammers. Even though extensive work has been
done on spam detection in social media, e.g., [87,98], Twitter
is still plagued by spam accounts [20]. Two main indications
of spam behavior are [98]: (i) the large number of hashtags
within a user’s posts, as it permits the broader broadcast of
such posts, and (ii) the population of large amounts of (almost)
similar posts. Authors in [2], in addition to the similarity of
tweets as an indication of spam behavior, they also studied the
URLs and domain names similarity. Apart from the content
duplication, based on [60], spammers often use popular hash-
tags on their tweets to persuade legitimate users to read their
tweets. The phenomenon of posting duplicate content and its
connection to spam behavior it is also apparent to online ac-
tivity outside the Twitter community. For instance, in [31,32]
the authors studied content duplication and found that clusters
with duplicate content are often spam-related.
Considering the aforementioned behaviors as indication of
spam activity, in our datasets the distributions of hashtags and
Figure 1: Similarity distribution of duplicate posts across the
duplications of posts are examined to detect the cutoff-limit
above which a user will be characterized as spammer and con-
sequently will be removed from the datasets.
Hashtags. Studying the hashtags distribution, we observe that
users use on average 0to 17 hashtags. Building on this, we
examine various cutoffs to select a proper one above which we
can characterize a user as spammer. In the end, after a manual
inspection, we observed that in most of the cases where the
number of hashtags was 5or more, the text was mostly related
to inappropriate content. So, the limit of 5hashtags is used,
and consequently we remove those users that have more than
5hashtags on average in their tweets.
Duplications. In many cases, a user’s texts are (almost) the
same, with only the listed mentioned users modified. So, in
addition to the previously mentioned cleaning processes, we
also remove all mentions. Then, to estimate the similarity of
a user’s posts we proceed with the Levenshtein distance [65]
which counts the minimum number of single-character edits
needed to convert one string into another, averaging it out over
all pairs of their tweets (Definition 2.2). Initially, for each
user we calculate the intra-tweets similarity. Thus, for a user
with xtweets, we arrive at a set of nsimilarity scores, where
n=x(x1)/2, and an average intra-tweet similarity per user.
Then, all users with average intra-tweets similarity above 0.8
(about 5%, see Figure 1) are excluded from the datasets.
Definition 2.2. Levenshtein distance (lev). The Levenshtein dis-
tance between two strings a, b (of length |a|and |b|, respectively) is
defined as:
leva,b(i, j ) =
max(i, j)if min(i, j ) = 0
leva,b(i1, j ) + 1
leva,b(i, j 1) + 1
leva,b(i1, j 1) + 1ai6=bj
Table 2provides some indicative examples of the most pop-
ular topics of the content that has been characterized as spam.
We followed the Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA) topic de-
tection process in all the datasets, combined. LDA [9] is a
generative statistical model where its objective is to find dis-
tinct topics in document collections. It is a generative process
1 porn, milf, porno, cougar, fuck, nude, sexy, bikini, watch, photo
2 boobs, liveoncam, sexcams, camgirls, milf, tits, naked, cumming, tatyanast, hardcore
3 followme, ayala, followmejp, followback, crisethq, babykathniel, nylinam, chinadorables, obcessed, follow
4 teamfollowback, follow, null, december, nightybutera, otwolmanilainlove, vote, pushaw, immadam, leonizamagic
Table 2: Popular topics in spam content.
Figure 2: CCDF plots (log-log scale) of the Baseline, Gamergate,
BBCpay, and NBA datasets.
that models each document as a mixture of latent topics, where
a topic is described by a distribution over words. The topic
extraction was made based on the JSAT [77], i.e., a Java sta-
tistical analysis tool. The tool provides an implementation of
LDA which is based on the Stochastic Variational Inference.
To run the LDA model we set the following parameters: (i)
batch size: 256, (ii) κ: 0.6, and (iii) tauo: 1. The κvalue
indicates the ‘forgetfulness’ factor in the learning rate, where
larger values increase the rate at which old information is ‘for-
gotten’. The tauois a learning rate constant that controls the
influence of early iterations on the solution. In this case, larger
values reduce the influence of earlier iterations, while smaller
ones increase the weight of earlier iterations. Finally, the num-
ber of the training epochs was set to 10.
We observe a high posting activity of inappropriate con-
tent, or an effort to attract more followers, which are common
examples of spam behavior. Across online social networks
there are various types of spam users, such as [58]: (i) dupli-
cate spammers who post a series of nearly identical links, (ii)
pornographic spammers where their data contain adult con-
tent, and (iii) friend infiltrators who follow many users and
try to accumulate many followers to start then the spam activ-
ity. So, based on the existing types of the spam users and the
extracted examples we can conclude that the followed spam
removal approach is suitable for removing at least the highly
spam content.
2.3 Datasets Overview
In the next paragraphs, we overview the collected datasets
(i.e., Gamergate, BBCPay, NBA, and baseline) with respect to
the frequency of posting per user, as well as the type of topics
discussed. For our initial analysis, we plot the Complemen-
tary Cumulative Distribution Function (CCDF) of the number
of posts made by the users in the considered datasets (Fig-
ure 2). Since there is an important difference in the numbers
of the participated users in the four considered datasets, be-
fore proceeding with the CCDF plot we randomly select equal-
sized sample of users, i.e., 64k, in alignment with the smallest
dataset. CCDF studies how often the random variable Xis
above a particular level x, and is defined as follows:
F(x) = P(X > x)=1P(Xx)
In fact, the Cumulative Distribution Function F(x)of a ran-
dom variable Xis defined as the following probability, for x
being any specified number:
F(x) = P(Xx)
We observe that the posting behavior of users follows a typ-
ical power-law distribution, in which many users have pub-
lished a few posts, and a few users have posted a lot. In fact,
this behavior is consistent across all three communities (i.e.,
communities created by the people involved in the Gamergate,
BBCPay, and NBA discussion groups), and is in line with [66]
which shows how communities are formulated around a spe-
cific topic, while also studies how similar are the messages
that are exchanged from the involved participants. Also, au-
thors in [11] observed a long-tail distribution pattern for both
user activity and user visibility, and more specifically they saw
that a handful of leading users are disproportionately active
or visible by comparison with the vast majority of their peers.
Here, we should state that we use a more abstract definition
of the term ‘online community’ which can be considered as ‘a
community that exists online, mainly on the Internet, where
its members with similar interests, experience, or shared val-
ues take part in social interactions such as share information,
knowledge, and experience with other members’ [102].
To further understand the content that has been posted in
the collected datasets, we proceed with the aforementioned
LDA model. We apply this technique in each of the datasets
and compute the top topics discussed in each one. To pro-
vide a clear indication of the most popular topics discussed in
the datasets under consideration, we decided to define a small
number of topics N to be extracted based on the LDA method.
We experimented with various values of N=[2,15] and con-
cluded that at most five topics resulted to a clear set of distinct
2.3.1 Gamergate Controversy
Gamergate controversy is one of the most well documented
large-scale cases of bullying/aggressive behavior we are aware
of [59]. It started with a blog post by an ex-boyfriend of in-
dependent game developer Zoe Quinn, alleging sexual impro-
prieties. 4chan boards like /r9k/ [3] and /pol/ [4], turned it
1 blacklivesmatter, white, black, nude, blonde, legs, west, believe, showing, means
2 lovewins, boobs, gamergate, love, booty, follow, remain, young, lady, leave
3 imwithher, hillary, booty, hillaryclinton, horny, whore, women, bernie, slut, feelthebern
4 euref, lgbt, people, cameron, model, referendum, david, really, guys, believe
5 brexit, farage, feminism, nigel, beautiful, read, anti, model, voters, culo
Table 3: Popular topics discussed in the Gamergate dataset.
into a narrative about “ethical” concerns in video game jour-
nalism and began organizing harassment campaigns [46]. It
quickly grew into a larger campaign centered around sexism,
feminism, and social justice, taking place on social media like
Twitter [39]. Although held up as a pseudo-political move-
ment by its adherents, there is substantial evidence that Gamer-
gate is more accurately described as an organized campaign of
hate and harassment [44]. What started as “mere” denigration
of women in the gaming industry, eventually evolved into di-
rected threats of violence, rape, and murder [101]. With indi-
viduals on both sides of the controversy using it, and extreme
cases of bullying and aggressive behavior associated with it
(e.g., direct threats of rape and murder), Gamergate contro-
versy, and more specifically the #GamerGate, can serve as a
relatively unambiguous hashtag associated with texts that are
likely to involve abusive/aggressive behavior from a fairly ma-
ture and hateful online community. In [63] the author shows
that #GamerGate can be likened to hooliganism, i.e., a leisure-
centered aggression were fans are organized in groups to attack
another group’s members. Also, [39] aims to detect toxicity on
Twitter, considering #GamerGate to collect a sufficient num-
ber of harassment-related posts.
Table 3presents some popular topics extracted based on the
LDA topic detection process. One of the most discussed issues
is the one related to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ international ac-
tivist movement, which has its origin in the African-American
community. Such a movement campaigns against violence
and systemic racism towards black people and it has spurred
the interest of the Gamergate community as well. Moreover,
based on the detected popular topics, we observe that there is
an increased interest in political issues, such as Brexit and the
USA presidential elections in 2016, as well as hostility against
Hillary Clinton.
Zooming in on the Gamergate users’ activity, we observe
that there are some heavy contributors to this community’s ac-
tivity (i.e., more than 20 posts). Table 4summarizes some pop-
ular topics discussed by such users. Here, we observe again
that the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and ‘Hillary Clinton’
are among the most discussed topics. Of course, as in any (on-
line) community, there are also peripheral users who, though
they contribute content relevant to the community, perhaps it
does not become highly influential. Later on in our investiga-
tion on cyberbullying (Sections 4-7), we particularly focus on
this mature community, as it exhibits more stable characteris-
tics with respect to users involved and can enable the automatic
detection of its abusive users.
2.3.2 BBC gender pay controversy (BBCpay)
The BBC gender pay controversy first appeared in summer
of 2017 when BBC published the annual salary report which
1 blacklivesmatter, internationalwomensday, black, pawg, bullying,games, mulher, seriesbrazil, better, youtube
2 imwithher, hillaryclinton, culo, busty, tetas, make, rtpig, life, honey,sega
3 women, internationalwomensday, love, happy,fuck, housewives, demdebate, asian, lesbian, sexe
Table 4: Popular topics from top contributors in the Gamergate
1 bbcsalaries, salary, garylineker, vine, jeremy, issue, bbcpaygap, never, uncomfortable, chatting
2 bbcpay, fcbars, year, bbcsalaries, revealed, paying, wages, penny, eddiemair, angry
3 trump, news, mike, fakenews, president, business, much, more, again, maga
4 brexit, british, europe, hard, actually, tourists, voters, rest, debate, leaving
5 news, iran, world, video, wednesdaywisdom, travel, more, most, bitcoin, july
Table 5: Popular topics discussed in the BBCpay dataset.
revealed that the highest salaries were delivered to men [100].
After the publishing of such report, a storm of tweets produced
with some posters for instance to express an objection on be-
half of those people whose personal information was exposed,
or those who directly attacked BBC for not well behaving to-
wards gender equality. Table 5depicts five popular topics
as they were discussed in the BBCpay dataset. We observe
that among the most popular topics is the one related with the
salary inequality among women and men in the BBC. For in-
stance, there is an increased reference to Gary Lineker’s salary
since he is one of the BBC’s highest paid on-air talent [38]. Of
course, as it is expected, there are also other popular discussed
topics, such as Brexit, which has dominated the discussions all
over the news for a long time period.
Considering the nature of the dataset, we speculate that even
though it will contain an important number of aggressive in-
stances, their intensity will probably be lower than that of the
Gamergate dataset. Overall, even though the BBC gender pay
controversy is considered as a trending topic with hate and
abusive elements within it, it is very new and much less or-
ganized. Thus, although it may carry some similarities with
the Gamergate controversy, the latter is an older, more mature
and organized community.
2.3.3 NBA & Baseline
The random sample of 1Mtweets serves as a baseline, since
it is less prone to contain abusive content, and therefore it pro-
vides a way to compare and distinguish among abusive and
typical user behavioral patterns. From Table 6, as it is ex-
pected, we observe that a variety of topics is discussed in the
baseline dataset, such as about popular singers, posts related
to job opportunities, or tech related information. Similar to the
random sample, the NBA dataset can be considered to include
less hateful and/or aggressive comments, compared to the
Gamergate and BBC gender pay controversy datasets. Nev-
ertheless, a common characteristic of the NBA dataset with
the more hate-related ones is the sense of community among
its members, as they are interested in a specific topic which
allows them to differentiate from randomly selected users. Ta-
ble 7provides an indication of the topics that are discussed
in NBA dataset. There is a lot of discussion around various
popular sports, such as football and baseball, and brands, such
as Adidas, as well as hot events, like the NBA 2018 summer
league. Therefore, the purpose of collecting such a dataset
(NBA) is to enable us to study the similarities and differences
1 ariana, grande, videomtv, mtvstars, vdeo, justin, voting, bieber, yaass, votar
2 androidgames, gameinsight, android, food, harvested, tribez, bank, consulting, united, join
3 jobs, apply, hiring, sales, needed, engineer, getalljobs, nurse, analyst, assistant
4 thanksgivingwithblackfamilies, cousin, grandma, plate, house, cousins, girl, make, come, grown
5 news, love, money, bitcoin, best, tech, great, fashion, death, photography
Table 6: Popular topics discussed in the baseline dataset.
1 game, jersey, sales, want, play, tickets, home, social, nbasummer, thanks
2 food, free, ebay, football, great, mondaymotivation, sport, live, money, theopen
3 card, hiring, baseball, today, careerarc, cards, jersey, newyork, recommend, instagram
4 news, chance, instantwingame, world, points, like, thanks, love, sywsweeps, sport
5 adidas, league, coupon, champion, nbadraft, shirt, vintage, best, nbasummer, love
Table 7: Popular topics discussed in the NBA dataset.
among both the less hate-related datasets, and those in which
strong groups are formed among their members but are not
strongly hate-related.
3 A systematic analysis of users behav-
ior traits
In this section we consider various dimensions including: user
attributes, posting activity, and content semantics, to offer
a systematic measurement-based characterization, comparing
the baseline and the Gamergate datasets, as well as the ob-
served differences with the BBC gender pay and NBA (the
cases with the most significant differences are presented).
To examine the significance of differences among the distri-
butions presented next, we use the two-sample Kolmogorov-
Smirnov test (Definition 3.1), a non-parametric statistical test,
to compare the probability distributions of different samples.
This test is proposed since it enables assessing whether two
samples come from the same distribution by building upon
their empirical distribution function (ECDF)1. We consider as
statistically significant all cases with p < 0.01 and report only
these cases.
Definition 3.1. Two-sample Kolmogorov-Smirnov test. Let’s
suppose that the first sample has size nwith an observed cu-
mulative distribution function E1(x)and the second sample
has size mwith an observed cumulative distribution function
E2(x). Then, the Kolmogorov-Smirnov statistic Dm,n is de-
fined as:
Dn,m =maxx|E1(x)E2(x)|
The two hypotheses under test are the following:
-Ho(Null hypothesis): the two samples come from a common
-Ha(Otherwise): the two samples do not come from a com-
mon distribution.
We reject the Hoat significance level α, if Dn,m >
nm .
3.1 Activity Characteristics
Here, we study the differences among the aforementioned
datasets on the following activity related characteristics: (i)
1A fraction of data-points that are less than or equal to some predetermined
values within a set of random numbers.
account age, (ii) number of posted tweets, (iii) number of hash-
tags, (iv) number of favorites, (v) number of urls, (vi) number
of mentions, and (vii) number of followers and friends. Ta-
ble 8summarizes the mean, median, and standard deviation
values for the user categories under discussion in accordance
to the activity-related characteristics. In the CDFs presented
next, we trim the plots when necessary to improve readability.
Account Age. Figure 3a shows the distribution of account
age for Gamergate, BBCpay, NBA participants, and baseline
Twitter users. For the most part, based on Table 8we ob-
serve that Gamergate users tend to have older accounts than
baseline Twitter users (D= 0.20). Among such two sets of
data, the oldest account belongs to a Gamergate user, while
only 26.64% of baseline users have account ages older than
the mean value of the Gamergate users. Concerning the other
two sets of data, we observe that their living age on Twitter is
more relevant to the Gamergate users with the older accounts
belonging to BBCpay users (D= 0.18 between Gamergate
and BBCpay users). The users of the NBA community are
quite expected to have a long duration on Twitter as well, since
this topic revolves around very active and popular events for
several years. Finally, the BBCpay dataset apart from regular
users, also may contain reporters and commentators on topical
issues with long activity on Twitter since in many cases Twit-
ter serves as a mean of broadcasting news [7]. Overall, we
see that users with longer-running accounts on Twitter tend to
be involved more on discussions around specific topics, i.e.,
Gamergate, BBC gender pay controversy, or the NBA.
Tweets and Hashtags. In Figure 3b we plot the distribution of
the number of tweets made by Gamergate, BBCpay, NBA, and
baseline users. We observe that the first three user categories
are significantly more active than baseline Twitter users (D=
0.35,D= 0.31,D= 0.22, respectively). Focusing more
on the Gamergate and baseline users, in Table 8we see that
the mean and STD values are 135,618 (baseline: 49,342) and
185,997 (baseline: 97,457) posts, respectively, which justifies
the image observed in the aforementioned figure.
Figure 3c reports the CDF of the number of hashtags found
in users’ tweets for both Gamergate and the baseline sample,
finding that Gamergate users use significantly (D= 0.26)
more hashtags than baseline Twitter users. Additionally, we
observe that the Gamergate users follow some of the trends of
other communities, i.e., the NBA community, where it seems
that an important number of hashtags is used in their posts,
most probably for dissemination reasons.
Favorites, Urls, and Mentions. Figure 3d shows the CDFs
of favorites declared in the users’ profiles. In the median case,
Gamergate users are similar to baseline users, but on the tail
end (30% of users), Gamergate users have more favorites de-
clared than baseline users (from Table 8the mean value of the
Gamergate users favorited tweets is almost the double that the
baseline users). Both the users of the NBA and BBCpay com-
munities follow a more similar behavior to the baseline ones,
in terms of their favoring activity.
Then, Figure 3e reports the CDF of the number of URLs
found in tweets by Gamergate, BBCpay, NBA, and baseline
users. Baseline users post fewer URLs (the median indicates
(a) Account age (b) Number of posts (c) Number of hashtags
(d) Number of favorites (e) Number of urls (f) Number of mentions
Figure 3: CDF distribution for various user profile features: (a) Account age, (b) Number of posts, (c) Hashtags, (d) Favorites, (e) Urls, and
(f) Mentions.
Metric Gamergate BBCpay NBA Baseline
Account age (days) 982.94 / 788 / 772.49 1,043 / 865 / 913.04 996.58 / 780 / 837.07 834.39 / 522 / 652.42
Tweets 135,618 / 48,587 / 185,997 236,972 / 50,405 / 408,088 82,134 / 28,241 / 126,206 49,342 / 9,429 / 97,457
Hashtags 3.47 / 2 / 2.97 2.57 / 2 / 2.19 3.33 / 3 / 2.48 2.02 / 2 / 1.35
Favorites (tweets) 7,005 / 297 / 15,350 3,741 / 38 / 19,507 5,559 / 121 / 4,434 22,393 / 39 / 13,298
Urls 0.998 / 1 / 0.711 0.805 / 1 / 0.646 0.940 / 1 / 0.662 0.544 / 0 / 0.622
Mentions 0.760 /1.0 / 0.916 0.726 /1.0 / 0.937 0.744 /1.0 / 0.917 0.774 /1.0 / 0.923
Followers 4,931 / 490 / 123,411 8,222 / 587 / 100,299 9,380 / 576 / 175,631 1,515 / 120 / 44,069
Friends 5,609 / 540 / 14,823 5,573 / 793 / 36,509 5,750 / 788 / 31,574 4,319 / 109 / 28,376
Table 8: Statistical overview of the activity characteristics (mean/median/standard deviation).
(a) Number of followers (b) Number of friends
Figure 4: CDF distribution of (a) Number of followers and (b) friends.
a difference of 1-2 URLs, D= 0.27), while Gamergate users
post more in an attempt to disseminate information about their
“cause,” somewhat using Twitter like a news service. The use
of urls on users posts shows the existence of a similar pattern
with the number of used hashtags from the four different user
categories with the users of the NBA community to be more
similar to the Gamergate and the BBCpay users to the baseline
Finally, Figure 3f shows that the mentioning activity be-
tween the Gamergate and baseline users is quite similar, with
the difference in the mean value to be only 0.014. As far as
the BBCpay and NBA participants tend to use fewer men-
tions in their posts, while their distinction from the Gamergate
users in both cases is statistically significant (with BBCPay:
D= 0.032, with NBA: D= 0.083).
Followers and Friends. Gamergate users are involved in anti-
social behavior. However, this is somewhat at odds with the
fact that their activity takes place primarily on social media.
Aiming to give an idea of how “social” Gamergate users are,
in Figures 4a and 4b we plot the distribution of followers and
friends for the four user categories. We observe that, perhaps
surprisingly, Gamergate users tend to have more followers and
friends than the baseline users (0.39 and D= 0.34). More
specifically, from Table 8we observe that Gamergate users
have almost 70% and 23% more followers, respectively, than
the baseline users (based on the mean values). Although this
might be somewhat counter-intuitive, the reality is that Gamer-
gate was born on social media and the controversy appears to
be a clear “us vs. them” situation. This leads to easy identifica-
tion of in-group membership, thus heightening the likelihood
of relationship formation.
Statistical significant is also the difference of both the num-
ber of followers (BBCpay: D= 0.29 and NBA: 0.28) and
friends (D= 0.37) concerning the BBCpay and NBA partici-
pants with the baseline users, who also seem to be more social
and well connected than baseline users. Overall, the users of
the NBA community tend to have the highest number of fol-
lowers, which is also in alignment with the users’ longtime
activity on Twitter, while concerning the number of friends
Gamergate users seem to have the most distinct behavior. Fi-
nally, considering both the number of followers and friends we
observe that BBCpay users are more similar to the NBA.
3.2 Emotional Characteristics
Studying in more depth the content of the posted tweets,
here we study a set of emotional characteristics to have a better
sense of the emotional intensity in users’ posts. More specifi-
cally, this set of characteristics involves the following: (i) sen-
timent, (ii) emotions, (iii) offensive, (iv) emoticons, and (v)
Sentiment. The overflow of sentiments drives humans every-
day actions and behaviors, a fact that is imprinted not only
in the offline, but also in the activities that take place in the
online world, i.e., the world of Internet. Under sentiment anal-
ysis, texts are analyzed to detect people’s opinions, typically
falling into the dual polarity of positive or negative, with occa-
sional consideration of a neutral standing. A variety of meth-
ods and tools has been proposed for detecting sentiments out
of text sources [83,53,17,90]. Here, we proceed with the Sen-
tiStrength tool [81] which estimates the positive and negative
sentiment on a [-4, 4] scale in short texts, even for informal
language often used on Twitter. First, however, we evaluate
its performance by applying it on an already annotated dataset
with 7,086 tweets [96]. The overall accuracy is 92%, attesting
to its efficacy for our purposes.
Figure 5a shows the CDF of sentiment of tweets for the four
datasets. Comparing the baseline with the Gamergate users we
observe that around 25% of tweets are positive for both types
of users. However, Gamergate users post tweets with a gen-
erally more negative sentiment (a two-sample Kolmogorov-
Smirnov test rejects the null hypothesis with D= 0.101). In
particular, around 25% of Gamergate users’ tweets are nega-
tive compared to only around 15% for baseline users. This ob-
servation is in line with the Gamergate dataset which contains
a large number of offensive posts.
Quite expected is the fact that the BBCpay users tend to post
more negative tweets than the baseline and NBA participants
- more similar, but a little bit less than the Gamergate users -
since it is a trending topic which involves hate-related behav-
iors but in a sense is less organized than the Gamergate con-
troversy (less duration in time). Finally, the users of the NBA
community seem to post the least negative and more positive
tweets than the other user categories which indicates that the
users tend to post in a non so hateful and aggressive fashion.
Emotions. Emotional analysis focuses more on humans’ sen-
timents, by tracking and revealing their emotions, e.g., anger,
happiness, and disgust. In the psychological science there is
an ongoing debate on selecting a set of emotions (known as
basic) which cover the overall spectrum of humans’ emotional
states. For instance, Plutchik [74] recognizes eight emotions as
basic, i.e., ‘acceptance, anger, anticipation, disgust, joy, fear,
sadness, and surprise,’ while Watson [99] proposes three emo-
tions, i.e., ‘fear, love, and rage.’ A theory that is often fol-
lowed in the emotion detection task is that of Ekman’s and his
colleagues [30], which identifies six emotions as basic, i.e.,
‘anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise.’ Ekman’s the-
ory is considered in the analysis provided next.
In emotional analysis, there are several approaches that can
be used, such as lexicon-based or machine learning-based.
Lexicon-based approaches tend to result in high precision and
low recall, while machine learning methods do not consider
the syntactic and semantic attributes. So, both methods em-
bed emotions misinterpretation risks [18]. To overcome such
deficiencies, here, a hybrid approach is followed similar to the
one presented in [19]. Based on this work, initially a lexicon-
based approach is used to extract two types of features, the sen-
timental (i.e., the expressed opinions: positive/negative) and
the emotional (i.e., the emotional intensity) ones. In addition
to emoticons, both such features, as well as document feature
vectors and emotional words are fed to a machine learning pro-
cess in order to detect the most prevailing emotion of a new
text (see Section 3 of [19] for more details).
Figure 5b shows the CDF of joy, where we reject the null hy-
pothesis that the baseline and Gamergate distributions are the
same (D= 0.04). We are unable to reject the null hypothesis
for the other five primary emotions. This is particularly inter-
esting because it contradicts the narrative that Gamergate users
are posting virulent content out of anger. Instead, Gamergate
users appear to be less joyful. This is a subtle but important
difference: Gamergate users are not necessarily angry, but they
(a) Sentiment (b) Joy (c) Uppercase letters
Figure 5: CDF distribution of (a) Sentiment, (b) Joy, and (c) Uppercases.
are apparently less happy. The BBCpay dataset seems to con-
tain the less joyful users which can be justified by the fact that
such a controversy has created a lot of frustration and disap-
pointment to the BBC female, and not only, community. The
difference with the other three user categories is statistical sig-
nificant (D= 0.04 with baseline, D= 0.02 with Gamergate
users, D= 0.05 with NBA).
Offensive. We also compare the offensiveness score that
tweets have been marked with according to the hatebase
(HB) [42] crowdsourced dictionary. Each word included in
HB is scored on a [0, 100] scale which indicates how hate-
ful it is. Though the difference is small (the related plot is
omitted), Gamergate users use more hateful words than the
baseline (D= 0.006) and NBA (D= 0.005) participants
(the difference in their distributions is statistically significant).
Even though the Gamergate users appear to post more offen-
sive tweets than the BBCpay users, such a difference is not
statistical significant (D= 0.005), which indicates that there
is an aggressive connotation of the posts that came out after
the revealing of the disparity in pay between the male and fe-
male top earners in the BBC, and this aggression is similar to
the Gamergate users’ posts.
Emoticons and Uppercases. Two common ways to express
emotion in social media are emoticons and “shouting” by us-
ing all capital letters. Based on the nature of Gamergate,
we initially suspected that there would be a relatively small
amount of emoticon usage, but many tweets that would be
shouting in all uppercase letters. Based on the correspond-
ing distributions this is not the case. Gamergate and baseline
users tend to use emoticons similarly (we are unable to reject
the null hypothesis with D= 0.028 and p= 0.96). Com-
paring the baseline users with the BBCpay and NBA related
users, even though the differences are subtle (with the baseline
users using more emoticons in their tweets) they are statistical
significant (D= 0.006 and D= 0.01, respectively).
Finally, based on Figure 5c which shows the usage of up-
percase letters on the posted tweets, we observe that Gamer-
gate users tend to use all uppercase less than baseline users
(D= 0.212). As seen previously, Gamergate users are quite
savvy Twitter users, and generally speaking, shouting tends
to be ignored. Thus, one explanation is that Gamergate users
avoid such a simple “tell” as posting in all uppercase to en-
sure their message is not so easily dismissed. From the same
plot we observe that BBCpay users show a more similar be-
havior with the Gamergate users (D= 0.06), while the users
of the NBA community are more similar to the baseline ones
(D= 0.04) - nevertheless their differences are statistical sig-
Takeaways. Overall, the behavior we observe is indicative
of Gamergate users’ “mastery” of Twitter as a mechanism for
broadcasting their ideals. In fact, their familiarity with Twitter
could be the reason that Gamergate controversy exploded in
the first place. For instance, they tend to favorite more tweets
and share more URLs and hashtags than the baseline users. We
also discovered that while the subject of their tweets is seem-
ingly aggressive and hateful, Gamergate users do not exhibit
common expressions of online anger, and, in fact, primarily
differ from baseline users in that their tweets are less joyful.
This aligns with the viewpoint of the Gamergate supporters
who claim that they never agreed to the aggressive methods
used in this campaign [63], which can result in a confusing ex-
pression of anger manifestation. Gamergate users tend to be
organized in groups, and in fact they participate also in face-
to-face meetings to create stronger bonds, which also reflects
on the higher number of followers and friends they have in
relation to baseline users, despite their seemingly anti-social
behavior. Also, we discover that Gamergate users are seem-
ingly more engaged than baseline Twitter users, which is an
indication as to how and why this controversy is still ongoing.
Considering the BBCpay controversy, even though in some
cases it shows similar patterns with the Gamergate phe-
nomenon, it also differentiates in some other aspects, e.g., in
the number of used hashtags and favorited tweets. Users in-
volved in the BBCpay controversy tend to be less aggressive
in their tweets and they have quite old accounts on Twitter,
while their posting activity is also especially intense. How-
ever, in order to extract more concrete conclusions about the
BBCpay controversy, and compare them with the Gamergate
controversy, a dedicated and more extensive study should be
done on this trending topic, to examine the dynamics of the
topic and how its community has matured and got organized
around key users, their characteristics and behaviors (e.g., abu-
Figure 6: Overview of our sessionization process for constructing two consecutive sessions. In each session, the interarrival time between
tweets does not exceed a predefined time threshold tl.
sive, offensive, and sarcastic).
Finally, the users of the NBA community seem to be very
popular and with long activity on Twitter, something which
is reasonable considering the popularity of the specific sport
around the world. Also, even though the NBA participants are
more organized than the baseline users, in the NBA dataset
the hate-related behaviors are almost nonexistent and similar
to the baseline users.
4 Ground Truth Building for Cyber-
bullying Detection
In the previous section we studied the properties of Twitter
users who are active in different groups and post tweets within
particular topics. Having in mind the different semantics of
each group or topic, we extracted characterizations for the
users in these groups. Next, we want to perform a more in-
depth analysis of user behavior, and how it could be classi-
fied as aggressive or normal. In particular, we are interested
in building a machine learning classifier that automatically de-
tects offensive behaviors (bullies and aggressors) and correctly
labels users for further (manual) investigation.
In this section, we present the data and the methodology
used to build a ground truth dataset that allows us to perform
such investigation with machine learning techniques. To build
this ground truth dataset we focus on the Gamergate and base-
line data only, for the following two reasons. First, and based
on the analysis presented in Section 3, the users of the Gamer-
gate community appear to be more aggressive and more ac-
tive (e.g., they use higher number of hashtags and favorites)
than the BBCpay and NBA participants. Second, these users
proceed with a higher number of mentions of other users in
their tweets, in a possible effort to attack them. Thus, for
the effort to build the machine learning classifier, we focus
on the Gamergate dataset, since we consider this community
as more suitable than the NBA or BBCpay topics for an in-
depth study of cyberbullying and cyberaggressive behavior of
Twitter users. We caution the reader that not all activity in the
Gamergate dataset is aggressive or bullying. It is, however,
more probable to detect such incidents of aggression, and that
is why we focus on the tweets of this topic.
4.1 Preparing Data for Crowdsourcing
In order to automatically characterize users into categories
such as bullies, aggressors, normal, or spammers, using a ma-
chine learning classification method (Section 6), a ground truth
dataset is necessary. Since no such annotated dataset was al-
ready available, we used a crowdsourced approach by recruit-
ing workers who are provided with a set of tweets from a user,
and are asked to classify them according to predefined labels.
Here, we initially present the process followed for preparing
the data to be used in the annotation process, while the next
subsection describes the crowdsourcing labeling approach.
Sessions. Cyberbullying usually involves repetitive actions.
Thus, we aim to study users’ tweets over time. Inspired by
Hosseinmardi et al. [48] – who consider a lower threshold of
comments for media sessions extracted from Instagram to be
presented in the annotation process – we create, for each user,
sets of time-sorted tweets (sessions) by grouping tweets posted
close to each other in time.
First, we remove users who are not significantly active, i.e.,
tweeting less than five times in the 3-month period. Then, we
use a session-based model where, for each session Si, the in-
terarrival time between tweets does not exceed a predefined
time threshold tl. We experiment with various values of tlto
find an optimal session duration and arrive at a threshold of
8 hours. Figure 6provides an overview of our sessionization
process. The minimum and maximum length of the resulting
sessions (in terms of the number of their included tweets) for
the hate-related (i.e., Gamergate) dataset are, respectively, 12
and 2.6k tweets. For the baseline set of tweets, they are 5and
1.6k tweets. Based on the sessionization process as it is de-
fined above, the minimum length of a session would be 2. But
there is always the probability that all sessions from our users
in the considered datasets to have a low limit which is higher
than 2 - which is the case here - since it totally depends on the
users’ activity. From the analysis that is provided in Section 3
we observe that the Gamergate users are more active in terms
of their posting activity in relation to the baseline users, and
thus their sessions are more packed with tweets.
Next, we divide sessions in batches, as otherwise they would
contain too much information to be carefully examined by a
crowdworker within a reasonable period of time. To find the
optimal size of a batch, i.e., the number of tweets per batch, we
performed preliminary labeling runs on FigureEight (formerly
known as CrowdFlower) [33], involving 100 workers in each
run, using batches of exactly 5,5-10, and 5-20 tweets. Our in-
Figure 7: Example of the crowdsourcing user interface.
tuition is that increasing the batch size provides more context
to the workers to assess if a poster is acting in an aggressive
or bullying behavior, however, too many tweets might confuse
them. The best results with respect to labeling agreement –
i.e., the number of workers that provide the same label for a
batch – occur with 5-10 tweets per batch. Therefore, we elim-
inate sessions with fewer than 5tweets, and further split those
with more than 10 tweets (preserving the chronological order
of their posted time). In the end, we arrive at 1,500 batches.
We also note that we maintain the same number of batches for
both the hate-related and baseline tweets.
4.2 Crowdsourced Labeling
We now present the design of our crowdsourcing labeling
process, performed on the crowdworking platform.
Labeling. Our goal is to label each Twitter user – not single
tweets – as normal,aggressor,bully, or spammer by analyz-
ing their batch(es) of tweets. Note that we also allow for the
possibility that a user is spamming and has passed our basic
spam filtering. Based on previous research [82,92,37], work-
ers are provided with the following definitions of aggressive,
bullying, and spam behaviors:
aggressor: someone who posts at least one tweet or retweet
with negative meaning, with the intent to harm or insult
other users (e.g., the original poster of a tweet, a group of
users, etc.);
bully: someone who posts multiple tweets or retweets (2)
with negative meaning for the same topic and in a repeated
fashion, with the intent to harm or insult other users (e.g.,
the original poster of a tweet, a minor, a group of users,
etc.) who may not be able to easily defend themselves dur-
ing the postings;
spammer: someone who posts texts of advertising / mar-
keting or other suspicious nature, such as to sell products
of adult nature, and phishing attempts.
Similar definitions for distinguishing between cyberbullying
and cyberaggression on social media platforms have been used
across literature, e.g., [48,28].
Crowdworking Task. We redirect employed crowd workers
to an online survey tool we developed. First, they are asked to
provide basic demographic information: gender, age, national-
ity, education level, and annual income. We then ask workers
to label 10 batches, one of which is a control case (details be-
low). We also provide them with the user profile description
(if any) of the Twitter user they are labeling and the definition
of aggressive, bullying, and spam behaviors. Figure 7presents
an example of the interface. The workers rated the instructions
given to them, as well as the overall task, as very good with an
overall score of 4 out 5.
Results. Overall, we recruited 834 workers. They were al-
lowed to participate only once to eliminate behavioral bias
across tasks and discourage rushed tasks. Each batch is la-
beled by 5different workers, and, similar to [48] and [67],
a majority vote is used to decide the final label. Out of the
1,500 batches, 1,303 batches had majority (3 out of 5 anno-
tators gave the same label), comprising 9,484 tweets in total.
Overall, we had absolute majority (5/5) for 15% of the batches,
strong majority (4/5) for 37%, and basic majority (3/5) for
48%. About 4.5% of users are labeled as bullies, 3.4% as ag-
gressors, 31.8% as spammers, and 60.3% as normal. Overall,
abusive users (i.e., bullies and aggressors) make up about 8%
of our dataset, which is in line with observations from previous
studies (e.g., in [51]9% of the users in the examined dataset
exhibit bad behavior, while in [8]7% of users cheated). Thus,
we believe our ground truth dataset contains a representative
sample of aggressive/abusive content from the Twitter-sphere.
Type Feature
User avg. # posts, # days since account creation, verified account
(total: 12) # subscribed lists, posts’ interarrival time, default profile image
statistics on sessions: total number, avg., median, and STD. of their size
location, profile description
Textual avg. # hashtags, avg. # emoticons, avg. # upper cases, # URLs
(total: 15) avg. sentiment score, avg. emotional scores, hate score
avg. word embedding score, avg. curse score, POS
# mentions, unique number of mentioned users, #retweets
avg. words per sentence, avg. word length
Network # friends, # followers, hubs, (d=#followers/#friends), authority
(total: 11) avg. power diff. with mentioned users, clustering coefficient, reciprocity
eigenvector centrality, closeness centrality, louvain modularity
Table 9: Features considered in the study.
Annotator Reliability. To assess the reliability of our work-
ers, we use (i) the inter-rater reliability measure, and (ii) con-
trol cases. To estimate the inter-rater reliability, we use the
Fleiss’ Kappa (Definition 4.1) which measures the agreement
between three or more raters. We find the inter-rater agreement
to be 0.54, which indicates a moderate strength of agreement
between the raters. Such moderate agreement highlights the
difficulty in detecting bullying and aggressive behaviors, even
when a manual inspection of the data at hand is considered.
We also use control cases to further assess worker “qual-
ity” by manually annotating three batches of tweets. During
the annotation process, each worker is given a set of batches to
annotate, one of which is a randomly selected control case: the
annotation of these control cases is used to assess their ability
to adequately annotate for the given task. We find 67% ac-
curacy overall (i.e., the percent of correctly annotated control
cases). More specifically, 84% accuracy for spam, 54% for
bully, and 61% for aggressive control cases.
Definition 4.1. Fleiss’ Kappa measure. Fleiss’ Kappa is de-
fined as:
where 1pis the degree of agreement that is attainable
above chance, while papis the degree of agreement ac-
tually achieved above chance. If the raters are in complete
agreement, then κ= 1.
5 Feature Extraction and Selection
The performance of a machine learning algorithm depends on
the input data. Therefore, it is important to understand the
data at hand, given the new label provided by the annotators.
In this section, we perform this in-depth analysis of the dataset
(i.e., the annotated dataset that was presented in Section 4)
with respect to these four labels, and the different dimensions
considered earlier, as well as new ones: user characteristics as
extracted from the user profiles, textual characteristics as ex-
tracted from the users’ tweets, and network properties of users
as extracted from the Twitter social network. We focus on
user-, text-, and network-based features so that we can sub-
sequently use them in the machine learning modeling of user
behaviors identified in the dataset.
Next, we detail the features from each category, summarized
in Table 9. To examine the significance of differences among
bully spam aggressive normal
Subscribed lists 24 / 428 57 / 3,723 40 / 1,075 74 / 4,327
Session statistics 3 / 8 3 / 51 3 / 8 3 / 163
Interarrival time (min) 0.0 / 1,068 13.0 / 135k 0.0 / 5,031 136 / 135k
Urls 1 / 1.17 1 / 2.38 0.9 / 2 0.6 / 1.38
Hashtags 2.9 / 4.5 2.0 / 5.0 2.9 / 4.4 1.25 / 7.4
Retweets 0.0 / 0.086 0.0 / 0.281 0.0 / 0.139 1.0 / 0.570
Mentions (users) 0.0 / 0.137 0.0 / 0.378 0.0 / 0.186 1.0 / 0.742
Unique mentions (users) 0.0 / 0.137 0.0 / 0.346 0.0 / 0.186 1.0 / 0.736
Avg. words per sentence 12.5 / 12.63 11.8 / 11.72 13.6 / 13.05 12.7 / 12.91
Avg. word length 10.01 / 9.54 7.30 / 7.83 8.31 / 8.35 7.38 / 7.76
Adjectives 1.5 / 2.46 2.0 / 3.21 4.0 / 3.46 4.0 / 4.28
Adverbs 1.0 / 1.53 0.0 / 1.52 1.0 / 2.02 2.0 / 2.61
Nouns 12.0 / 12.43 9.0 / 11.06 15.0 / 14.32 12.0 / 13.35
Verbs 11.0 / 12.25 5.0 / 6.62 12.0 / 12.18 10.0 / 11.15
Table 10: Statistical overview of user- and text-based features (me-
the distributions presented next, similar to Section 3, we use
the two-sample Kolmogorov-Smirnov test and we consider as
statistically significant all cases with p < 0.01. Table 10 sum-
marizes the median and max values for both user- and text-
based features, where necessary. The work in [14] provides
an extended analysis of the Empirical cumulative distribution
function for most of the following presented features.
5.1 What do Bullies, Aggressors, Spammers,
and Normal Users Post About?
To have a better sense of the four considered user categories,
i.e., bullies, aggressors, spammers, and normal users, initially
we proceed with an analysis of the content produced from each
one of them (e.g., popular topics and top hashtags). Table 11
depicts three popular topics discussed in each one of the four
user categories based on the LDA analysis. We observe that
normal users tend to discuss about a variety of topics, such as
political and social issues (pro-choice, uniteblue, brexit, etc.),
as well as popular music performers (Britney Spears, Selena
Gomez, etc.).
Spammers often use Twitter as a tool to send inappropriate
content, to post malicious links, or to attract followers in order
to extend their network [60]. This is also verified when we re-
view the popular topics that are presented in Table 11 (and is
also depicted in the topics presented in Table 2), where either
inappropriate content is presented or an effort to gain more
followers is apparent by discussing attractive topics. Bully
users seem to organize their attack against important and sen-
sitive issues, like the feminism, religion, and pedophiles. This
note is in alignment with earlier observations for the popular
topics presented in both Tables 3and 4which are related to
the Gamergate controversy. Often the language used is quite
aggressive and in extreme cases insulting. Finally, aggres-
sive users express their negativity on popular topics, like the
‘brexit’ case, or the situation of Venezuela doctors who fume
at official silence on Zika [75]. The topics that are presented
here tend to be related more with those extracted from the BBC
dataset (Table 5), where the aggressiveness tends to be lower
in relation to the bullying cases.
To analyze further the users’ tweets, Table 12 presents five
of the most popular hashtags for each one of the aforemen-
tioned user categories. It also shows the average number of
User category Topic
Normal uniteblue, feminism, women, tcot, abortion, gender, imwithher, prochoice, womenrights, otrasheffield
mtvstars, britney, spears, lana, great, gomez, selena, demi, lovato, antinwonowtina
brexit, voteleave, euref, gamersunite, leaveeu, people, world, voteremain, vote, pushawardsjadines
Spam porn, tweet, boobs, sexy, pics, vids, tits, antinwonowtina, exposes, erol
love, pushawardskathniels, boobs, retweet, busty, followers, years, girls, again, leaked
lgbt, dino, love, follow, nowplaying, itunes, giveaway, summer, enter, seconds
Bully feminismisawful, antifeminist, whitegenocide, direction, mtvstars, antifeminism, famous, diversity, hypocrisy, feminista
action, offend, crowd, comentario, andreiwi, grollizo, hatebritain, jewfnitedstate, feminista, watchmylifegrow
stayandendure, masochist, pigs, feminist, voteremain, paedophiles, genocide, misery, feelthebern, patriarchy
Aggressor zionist, groomed, erol, exposes, jews, promisedlanding, misery, heart, world, necessidade
brexit, leaveeu, more, like, attack, cowards, bluehand, feminismisaw, maga, medical
feminism, venezuela, hatebritain, ormiga, heard, show, abandon, rioux, brad, safe
Table 11: Popular topics discussed from bullies, aggressors, spammers, and normal users.
User category Top hashtags Avg. #hashtags
Normal #mtvstars, #uniteblue, #pushawardslizquens, #pushawardskathniels, #brexit 1.81
Spam #boobs, #ass, #porn, #busty, #milf 2.04
Bully #feminazi, #hateconsumed, #fags, #feminismisawful, #jewfs 2.86
Aggressor #gay, #zionist, #feminismisawful, #hate, #brexit 2.63
Table 12: Popular hashtags per user category.
hashtags used in the tweets of these user categories. It seems
that both bully and aggressive users tend to use a high number
of hashtags in their tweets, in a clear effort to link their tweets
with the specific topics covered by the hashtags. This could
also be considered as an attempt to attract more people and
create strong communities around the particular topic under
5.2 User-based Features
Basics. In this section, various features extracted from a user’s
profile are examined. Features in this category include the
number of tweets a user has made, the age of his account
(i.e., number of days since its creation), the number of lists
subscribed to, if the account is verified or not (i.e., acknowl-
edged by Twitter as an account linked to a user of “public in-
terest”), whether or not the user still uses the default profile
image, whether or not the user has provided information about
his living place (location), and the length of a user’s profile
description (if any). Table 10 summarizes the various features
analyzed and their corresponding basic statistics. As a repre-
sentative example, we note the difference in the participation
of groups from each class of users, with normal users signing
up to more lists than the other types of users.
Session Statistics. Here, we consider the number of sessions
produced by a user from June to August and we estimate the
average, median, and standard deviation of the size of each
user’s sessions. Comparing the distributions among the bullies
and aggressors to the normal users, we conclude that the dif-
ferences are not statistically significant with D=0.16052 and
D=0.14648 for bully vs. normal, and aggressors vs. normal,
Interarrival Time. From the analysis presented in [14] and
the results of Table 10 we can observe that bullies and ag-
gressors tend to have less waiting time in their posting activity
compared to the spam and normal users, which is in alignment
with the results in [48] on the Instagram social network.
5.3 Text-based Features
For text-based features, we look deeper into a user’s tweet-
ing activity by analyzing specific attributes that exist in their
Basics. We consider some basic metrics across a user’s tweets:
the number of hashtags used, uppercase text (number of up-
percase characters in a word - we exclude the first character
of the beginning of a sentence) which can be indicative of in-
tense emotional state or ‘shouting’, number of emoticons, and
URLs. For each of these, we take the average over all tweets
in a users’ annotated batch. Furthermore, both the total num-
ber of mentions, as well as the unique number of mentioned
users, in addition to the number of retweets have been con-
sidered as possible factors for better discriminating among the
four different user categories.
As we can see from Table 10 normal users tend to post fewer
URLs than the other 3classes. Also, we observe that aggres-
sive and bully users have a propensity to use more hashtags
within their tweets, as they try to disseminate their attacking
message to more individuals or groups.
Word Embedding. Word embedding allows finding both se-
mantic and syntactic relation of words, which permits the cap-
turing of more refined attributes and contextual cues that are
inherent in human language. E.g., people often use irony
to express their aggressiveness or repulsion. Therefore, we
use Word2Vec [61], an unsupervised word embedding-based
approach to detect semantic and syntactic word relations.
Word2Vec is a two-layer neural network that operates on a
set of texts to: 1) initially establish a vocabulary based on
the words included in such set more times than a user-defined
threshold (to eliminate noise), 2) apply a learning model to
input texts to learn the words’ vector representations in a D-
dimensional, user-defined space, and 3) output a vector repre-
sentation for each word encountered in the input texts. Based
on [61], 50-300 dimensions can model hundreds of millions of
words with high accuracy. Possible methods to build the actual
model are: 1) CBOW (i.e., Continuous bag of words), which
uses context to predict a target word, and 2) Skip-gram, which
uses a word to predict a target context. Skip-gram works well
with small amounts of training data and handles rare words or
phrases well, while CBOW shows better accuracy for frequent
words and is faster to train.
Here, we use Word2Vec to generate features to better cap-
ture the context of the data at hand. We use a pre-trained model
with a large scale thematic coverage (with 300 dimensions)
and apply the CBOW model due to its better performance re-
garding the training execution time. Finally, having at hand the
vector representations of all input texts’ words, the overall vec-
tor representation of an input text is derived by averaging all
the vectors of all its comprising words. Comparing the bully
distribution with the normal one we conclude to D=0.0943
and p=0.723, while in the aggressive vs. normal distribution
comparison D=0.1105 and p=0.702, thus in both cases the
differences are not statistically significant.
Sentiment and Emotional Characteristics. Sentiment has
already been considered during the process of detecting abu-
sive behavior in communications among individuals, e.g., [64].
To detect sentiment (similar to Section 3) we use the Sen-
tiStrength tool [81]. Comparing the distributions of the aggres-
sive class with the normal we observe that they are statistically
different (D=0.2743), while this is not the case for the bully
class compared with the normal one (D=0.2041,p=0.022).
We also attempt to detect more concrete emotions, i.e., anger,
disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise based on the approach
presented in [16] (see also Section 3for Emotional Character-
istics). Comparing the distributions of the abusive classes with
the normal, we observe no statistical difference. For anger,
even though the aggressive and normal distributions are statis-
tically different (D=0.2152), the bully and normal users are
not (D=0.08 and p=0.88). These, in fact, are important find-
ings that, at first glance, contradict intuition: users who exhibit
bullying behavior, as decided by the majority of annotators, do
not demonstrate extreme emotions such as anger, and do not
express themselves with intense negative sentiment. There-
fore, a very basic or naive classifier which depends on such
emotions would fail to detect subtle expressions of aggressive-
ness and bullying.
Hate and Curse Words. Additionally, we wanted to specif-
ically examine the existence of hate speech and curse words
within tweets. For this purpose, we use the Hatebase database,
as well as a list of swear words [1] in a binary fashion; i.e.,
we set a variable to true if a tweet contained any word in the
list, and false otherwise. Even though these lists can be useful
in categorizing general text as hateful or aggressive, they are
not well suited for classifying tweets as they are short and typ-
ically include modified words, URLs, and emoticons. Overall,
we find that bully and aggressive users have a minor bias to-
wards using such words, but they are not significantly different
from normal users’ behavior.
Part of Speech (POS). POS tagging has been considered dur-
ing the feature extraction process, to understand better the type
of expressions used from the different user categories. POS
tagging is the process of marking up a word in a text corre-
sponding to a particular part of speech, based on both its def-
inition, as well as its context. More specifically, a POS is a
category of words with specific grammatical properties, such
as adjectives, adverbs, nouns, and verbs. To extract the POS
tags out of the available textual resources, we built upon the
POS tagger provided by the Tweet NLP library [93]. Fig-
ures 8a,8b,8c, and 8d show the CDF for the number of ad-
jectives, adverbs, nouns, and verbs, respectively, for the four
user classes. Based on the aforementioned figures, and the
statistics in Table 10, we observe that bully users tend to use
a lower number of adjectives in their posts in relation to other
user categories. A similar pattern is observed in the case of ad-
verbs. Finally, we observe that spam users tend to use a lower
number of nouns and verbs, where especially in the case of the
verbs usage the differentiation from the other user categories
is quite intense. Overall, we observe that bully users avoid to
use adjective and adverbs in their posts, which are often used
to describe a noun/pronoun or to modify nouns, verbs, and ad-
jectives, respectively. This indicates that they may prefer to
perform more straight attacks without adding any additional
information which is often provided with the adjectives and
Stylistic Features. Finally, we also consider two stylistic fea-
tures, i.e., the average words per sentence and the average
word length, which have been used in stylometric analysis [6],
i.e., an approach to automatically recognize hidden attributes
related to texts’ authors. Figures 8e and 8f show the CDF of the
average words per sentence and average word length, respec-
tively. Concerning the average number of words per sentence,
it seems that spam users follow a common pattern with the
normal users, albeit normal users post tweets with somewhat
more words. This pattern is also confirmed in the average word
length, which gives hints to how spammers try to hide their
content by imitating normal users and their posts. Aggressive
and bully users have a distinct pattern, with aggressive users
posting tweets with the most number of words for the majority
of users (70%), but bully users post tweets with the longest,
and perhaps more complex words than aggressive, normal, or
spam users.
5.4 Network-based Features
Twitter social network plays a crucial role in diffusion of
useful information and ideas, but also of negative opinions,
rumors, and abusive language (e.g., [49,71]). Due to the in-
creased cost for building such a network (Twitter API limits
retrieval of information to only 5,000 user ids per 15 minutes
and per API key [95]), past research has mostly focused on
text- and user-based features, as they are easier and faster to ac-
cess (these data are typically accessible from the JSON files of
the downloaded tweets, with no extra crawling required). Go-
ing beyond the state of art, we study the association between
cyberbullying or cyberaggressive behavior and the position of
users in the social network of friends and followers on Twitter.
For this analysis to take place, we constructed a network
of friends and followers on Twitter, by considering the users
in our dataset as our seeds for crawling the network. In
fact, a two-hop followers/friends graph was built, where, apart
(a) Adjectives. (b) Adverbs. (c) Nouns.
(d) Verbs. (e) Average words per sentence. (f) Average word length.
Figure 8: CDF of (a) Adjectives, (b) Adverbs, (c) Nouns, (d) Verbs, (e) Average words per sentece, (f) Average word length.
from considering the followers and friends of each user in
our dataset, we further extended the network by considering
the contacts (followers and friends) of the followers/friends of
the initial users. This way, we were able to expand the net-
work construction beyond the ego-network of each user in our
dataset, and thus, better understand the associations that exist
between types of users and the formulation of possible com-
In our case, the constructed network is comprised of about
1.2Musers and 1.9Mfriend edges (i.e., someone who is fol-
lowed by a user) or follower edges (i.e., someone who follows
a user), with effective diameter of 4.934, average clustering
coefficient of 0.0425, and 24.95% and 99.99% of nodes in the
weakest and largest component, respectively. Users in such a
network can have a varying degree of embeddedness with re-
spect to friends or followers, reciprocity of connections, con-
nectivity with different parts of the network, etc.
Popularity. The popularity of a user can be defined in different
ways. For example, using the number of friends (out-degree
centrality), the number of followers (in-degree centrality), or
the ratio of the two measures (since Twitter allows users to
follow anyone without their approval, the ratio of followers
to friends can quantify a user’s popularity). These measures
can quantify the opportunity for a user to have a positive or
negative impact in his ego-network in a direct way.
Interestingly, in the analysis presented earlier about the
Gamergate (Figure 4a), users involved in that community have
been found to have a higher number of followers and friends
than the baseline users. However, when these users are fur-
ther analyzed into the four annotated categories (Figure 9a),
we find that aggressive and bully users have fewer followers
than the other user categories, with normal users having the
most followers. Similar comment applies for the distribution
of friends. This suggests that aggressive behavior does not at-
tract users to follow the aggressors. To justify that the Gamer-
gate dataset contains an important number of offensive users,
we checked how many bully and aggressive users come from
the Gamergate dataset. Out of the 101 offensive users (i.e., 58
bully and 43 aggressive users) the 95% of them derive from
the Gamergate dataset, while only a 5% have its origin from
the baseline dataset. This suggests that indeed the Gamergate
dataset contains an important number of offensive users and
thus correctly has been used from studying abusive phenom-
ena that take place online.
Reciprocity. This metric quantifies the extent to which users
reciprocate the follower connections they receive from other
users. Reciprocity as a feature has also been used in [47], but
in an interaction-based graph using likes in posts. Here, being
the first to do so in the context of bullying, we investigate the
fundamental reciprocity in Twitter friendship. We have found
the average reciprocity in our network to be 0.2. In fact, Fig-
ure 9b shows that the user classes considered have different
distributions, with the bully and aggressive users being more
similar and with a higher number of reciprocities than the nor-
mal or spammers.
Power Difference. A recent study [73] found that the emo-
(a) Followers. (b) Reciprocity.
(c) Hubs. (d) Eigenvector.
Figure 9: Boxplots of (a) Followers, (b) Reciprocity, (c) Hubs, and (d) Eigenvectors. The data are divided into three quartiles (i.e., first, third,
and median quartiles in the data set). The top and the bottom whiskers indicate the maximum and minimum values, respectively. We removed
outliers from the plots.
tional and behavioral state of victims depend on the power of
their bullies, e.g., more negative emotional experiences were
observed when more popular cyberbullies conducted the at-
tack, and the high power difference with respect to status in
the network has been shown to be a significant characteristic
of bullies [22]. Thus, we consider the power difference be-
tween a tweeter and his mentions an important metric to be
analyzed and used as a feature. In fact, a further analysis of
a user’s mentioned users could reveal possible victims or by-
standers of his aggressive or bullying behavior. To this end, we
compute the difference in power a user has with respect to the
mentioned users in their posts, in terms of their respective fol-
lowers/friends ratio. Based on the two-sample Kolmogorov-
Smirnov test the difference in power between the bully and
normal users is statistically significant (D=0.31676), while
the same comparison between aggressive and normal users is
not (D=0.221,p=0.037).
Centrality Scores. We also investigate users’ position in their
network through more elaborate metrics such as hub, author-
ity, eigenvector, and closeness centrality, that measure influ-
ence in their immediate and extended neighborhood, as well
as connectivity.
Hubs and Authority. A node’s hub score is the sum of the au-
thority score of the nodes that point to it, and authority shows
how many different hubs a user is connected with [55].
Influence. Eigenvector centrality measures the influence of a
user in their network, immediate or extended over multiple
hops. Closeness centrality measures the extent to which a user
is close to each other user in the network.
To calculate the last four measures, we consider both the
followers and friends relations of the users under examination
in an undirected version of the network. From Figure 9c we
observe that bullies have lower values in their hub scores (the
same applies to the authority scores) which indicates that they
are not so popular in their networks. In terms of influence on
their ego and extended network, they have behavior similar
to spammers, while aggressors seem to have influence more
similar to normal users (Figure 9d). We omit the CDF of the
closeness centrality measure because we cannot reject the null
hypothesis that the distributions are different.
Communities. Past work [40] showed that bullies tend to ex-
perience social rejection from their environment and face dif-
ficulties in developing social relations. We examine the use-
fulness of this attribute and calculate the clustering coefficient
which shows a user’s tendency to cluster with others. Simi-
lar to the above, in our case we also observe that bullies and
spammers are less prone to create clusters in contrast to ag-
gressive and normal users. Finally, we compute communities
using the Louvain method [10] which is suitable for identi-
fying groups on large networks as it attempts to optimize the
modularity measure (how densely connected the nodes within
a cluster are) of a network by moving nodes from one clus-
ter to another. Overall, we observe a few communities with a
high number of nodes (especially the network core) resulting
in a feature which statistically differentiates bullies vs. nor-
mal users (D=0.206), but not aggressive vs. normal users
Takeaways. In this section we analyzed various user, text, and
network attributes that could be considered in the classifica-
tion process in order to detect abusive users, i.e., bullies and
aggressors, out of the normal users and spammers. As it was
expected some attributes are more distinguishable among the
different user categories and can assist more during the classi-
fication process. Normal users tend to discuss about a variety
of topics, such as political and social issues, whereas bully
users seem to organize their attacks against important and sen-
sitive issues, such as feminism, religion, and pedophiles, using
aggressive and in some cases insulting language. Aggressive
users express their negativity on popular topics, such as the
‘brexit’ case, ‘maga’, and the spread of the zika virus. Spam-
mers typically post inappropriate content in an effort to gain
more followers or attract victims to malicious sites of ques-
tionable or malicious content. We also saw that the number
of participated lists, the used URLs as well as hashtags within
users’ tweets, or the reciprocity, exhibit different patterns for
each user category. In addition, bullies and aggressors tend to
have less waiting time in their posting activity compared to the
other users.
There are also some cases, where the considered attributes
are more distinguishable for specific user categories. For ex-
ample, we observed a noticeable distinction in terms of the
expressed sentiment from the aggressive users, while we also
saw that spam users tend to clearly deviate in terms of the verbs
usage in their tweets. However, spammers try to imitate nor-
mal users with respect to the length of the tweet in number of
words and length of words used. Aggressive and bully users
have a clearly different behavior than normal or spam users,
making them easier to identify. Also, bully and aggressive
users exhibit higher network reciprocity, but bully users are
less central in the network than aggressive or normal users.
On the other hand, there are attributes such as whether the
account is verified or not, or whether a user has declared his
location, where the difference among the considered user cate-
gories is not statistically significant, and as a consequence can-
not help to distinguish among them during an automatic classi-
fication process. So, overall the analysis that is provided in this
section can help in deciding which attributes would be more
helpful during the classification process in the effort to detect
efficiently abusive users based on their behavior on Twitter.
6 Machine Learning for Bullying &
Aggression Detection
In this section we present the effort to model bully and aggres-
sive behaviors on Twitter, using the features extracted and the
bully aggressive spam normal
#users 58 43 415 787
#texts (mean) 517 (8.91) 336 (7.81) 3028 (7.29) 5603 (7.11)
Table 13: Dataset overview (annotated).
labels provided by the crowdworkers as presented earlier (Sec-
tion 4). Table 13 provides an overview of the dataset used in
the following experiments. The highest number of cases be-
longs to normal users, followed by spam users, and with the
bully and aggressive users to have about the same rate.
6.1 Experimental Setup
We consider various traditional and extensible used machine
learning algorithms, either probabilistic, tree-based, ensemble,
and neural network classifiers. Next, a brief overview of the
considered machine learning algorithms is presented, while
Section 6.3 presents the corresponding results.
Probabilistic Classifiers. Such classifiers [35] are used by the
machine learning community because of their simplicity and
typically good performance. They are defined as follows:
Definition 6.1. Probabilistic Classifiers. They use Bayes’s
rule to estimate the conditional probability of a class label y,
based on the assumption that such probability can be decom-
posed into a product of conditional probabilities:
Pr(y|x) = Pr(y|x1, x2, ..., xn),
where x= (x1, x2, ..., xn)is the ndimension feature vector.
Both the BayesNet (BN) and Naive Bayes (NB) classifiers
have been evaluated, with the latter to perform better between
the two.
Tree-based Classifiers. Such classifiers [76] are considered
relatively fast to train and apply, compared to other classifica-
tion models.
Definition 6.2. Tree-based Classifiers. They construct trees
by splitting the set of xattributes into smaller subsets (internal
nodes) beginning with xitself (root node) and concluding with
the assignment of data to categories (lead node). Overall, they
are comprised of three types of nodes:
the root node, with no incoming edges;
the internal nodes, with just one incoming and two or
more outgoing edges;
the leaf node, with one incoming edge and no outgoing
The root and each internal node correspond to attribute test
conditions (in the simplest form, each test corresponds to a
single attribute) for separating data based on their character-
istics, while the leaf nodes correspond to the available cate-
We experimented with various tree classifiers: J48,
LADTree, LMT, NBTree, Random Forest (RF), and Func-
tional Tree; we achieved best performance with the Random
Forest classifier, which constructs a forest of decision trees
Figure 10: Overview of the neural network setup for classification of abuse on Twitter.
with random subsets of features during the classification pro-
cess. So, an important advantage of the Random Forest clas-
sifier is its ability in reducing overfitting by averaging sev-
eral trees during the model construction process. Additionally,
Random Forests are quite efficient in terms of the time they
need for training a model, while finally they do not require
any scaling in the features to be used (e.g., categorical, binary,
or numerical). To build the Random Forest model, we tune
the number of trees to be generated as 100 and the maximum
depth unlimited.
Ensemble Classifiers. Such methods [27] are built upon a
set of classifiers whose individual decisions are then combined
(typically by a (un)weighted voting) to classify new data. En-
semble classifiers often perform better than single classifiers.
The most important reason behind this performance is that er-
rors from a single classifier can be eliminated by averaging
across multiple classifiers’ decisions. Nevertheless, in order
the ensemble methods to perform better than any single clas-
sifier, the base learners have to be as accurate as possible and
as diverse as possible.
We experimented with various combinations of single clas-
sifiers from all the previously referred classification methods
in order to conclude to the one with the most optimal perfor-
mance, namely: Random Forest + BayesNet + Naive Bayes
+ AdaBoost [41] (with Random Forest). We proceeded with
the voting method which works by creating two or more sub-
models. Each sub-model makes predictions which are then
combined based on a combination rule, thus allowing each
sub-model to vote on what the outcome should be. In our case
the majority vote has been used as a combination rule.
Features selection. Most of the features presented in Section 5
are useful in discriminating between the user classes. Features
not useful, i.e., that do not discriminate between classes in a
statistically significant level, are excluded from the modeling
analysis to avoid adding noise. Specifically, we exclude the
following features from our analysis: user-based - verified ac-
count, default profile image, statistics on sessions, location,
profile description, text-based - average emotional scores, hate
score, average word embedding, average curse score, number
of mentions, unique number of mentioned users, number of
retweets, and network-based - closeness centrality and Lou-
vain modularity.
Neural Networks for Detecting Abuse. Even though the
traditional machine learning approaches have been extensible
used in text classification tasks, they face an important draw-
back: they cannot successfully combine semantic and cultural
nuances of the written language. For instance, considering the
negation of words or sarcastic expressions with traditional ma-
chine learning approaches is a quite challenging task, as the
structure of the sentence has to be effectively presented in the
set of features. To overcome such difficulties, deep learning al-
gorithms have been proposed that build upon neural networks.
Thus, here we also proceed with a modeling process building
upon neural networks. We build a classification model for abu-
sive behavior that combines together the i) raw text, and ii) the
user-, text-, and network-based features (called metadata). In
the next paragraphs, we describe these two paths separately at
first, but their output is combined together into a single model.
The whole architecture is shown in Figure 10.
Text Classification Network. This part of the classifier only
considers the raw text as input. There are several choices
for the class of neural network to base our classifier on. We
use Recurrent Neural Networks (RNN) since they have proven
successful at understanding sequences of words and interpret-
ing their meaning. We experimented with both character-level
and word-level RNNs and found the latter to be the most per-
formant in our dataset.
Text preprocessing: first of all we concatenate all the tweets
of a single user into a single text document (referred as text
from now on). Before feeding any text to the network, we need
to transform each sample to a sequence of words. As neural
networks are trained in mini-batches, every sample in a batch
must have the same sequence length (number of words). Text
containing more words than the sequence length is trimmed,
whereas text with less words is left-padded with zeros (the
model learns they carry no information). Ideally, we want to
setup a sequence length that is large enough to contain most
text from the samples, but avoid outliers as they waste re-
sources (feeding zeros in the network). Thus, we take the 95th
percentile of length (with respect to the number of words) in
the input corpus as the optimal sequence length. Additionally,
we remove any words that appear only once in the corpus, as
they are most likely typos and can result in overfitting. Once
preprocessed, the input text is fed to the network for learning.
Word embedding layer: the first layer of the network per-
forms a word embedding, which maps each word to a high-
dimensional vector. Word embedding has proved to be a
highly effective technique for text classification tasks, and ad-
ditionally reduces the number of training samples required to
reach good performance. We settled on using pre-trained word
embeddings from GloVe [69], which was constructed on more
than 2billion tweets. We choose the highest dimension em-
beddings available, i.e., 200, as these produce the best results
in our dataset (with different dimension embeddings the per-
formance does not vary importantly, i.e., max 0.03 in some
cases). If a word is not found in the GloVe dataset, we ini-
tialize a vector of random weights, which the word embedding
layer eventually learns from the input data.
Recurrent layer: the next layer is an RNN with 128 units
(neurons). As mentioned previously, RNNs learn sequences
of words by updating an internal state. After experiment-
ing with several choices for the RNN architecture (Gated Re-
current Unit or GRUs, Long Short-Term Memory or LSTMs,
and Bidirectional RNNs), we find that due to the rather small
sequences of length in social media (typically less than 100
words per post, just 30 for Twitter), simple GRUs perform as
well as more complex units. Additionally, to avoid overfitting,
we use a recurrent dropout with p= 0.5(i.e., individual neu-
rons were available for activation with probability 0.5) as it is
proposed in [84]. Finally, an attention layer [5] is added, as it
provides a mechanism for the RNN to “focus” on individual
parts of the text that contain information that is related to the
task. Attention is particularly useful to tackle texts that contain
longer sequences of words (e.g., multiple tweets concatenated
Metadata Network. The metadata network considers non-
sequential data. For example, on Twitter, it might evaluate the
number of followers, the number of recent tweets, the location,
account age, total number of tweets, etc., of a user.
Metadata Preprocessing: before feeding the data into the
neural network, we need to transform any categorical data into
numerical, either via enumeration or one-hot encoding, de-
pending on the particulars of the input. Once this has taken
place, each sample is thus represented as a vector of numerical
Batch Normalization Layer: neural network layers work
best when the input data have zero mean and unit variance, as it
enables faster learning and higher overall accuracy. Thus, we
pass the data through a Batch Normalization layer that takes
care of this transformation at each batch.
Dense layers: we use a simple network of several, fully
connected (dense) layers to learn the metadata. We design
our network so that a bottleneck is formed. Such a bottle-
neck has been shown to result in automatic construction of
high-level features [43,91]. In our implementation, we experi-
mented with multiple architectures and decided to use 5layers
of size 512,245,128,64,32, which provide good results in our
dataset. On top of this layer, we add an additional (6th) layer
which ensures this network has the same dimensionality as the
text-only network; this ends up enhancing performance when
we fuse the two networks. Finally, we use tanh as our activa-
tion function since it works better with standardized numerical
Combining the two paths. The two classifiers presented above
can handle individually either the raw text or the metadata.
To build a multi-input classifier, we combine these two paths
using a concatenation layer. Finally, we use a fully connected
output layer (a.k.a. dense layer) with one neuron per class we
want to predict, and a softmax activation function to normalize
output values between 0and 1. The output of each neuron at
this stage represents the probability of the sample belonging to
each respective class.
Training the combined network. The simplest approach is to
train the entire network at once; i.e., to treat it as a single clas-
sification network with two inputs. However, the performance
we achieve from this training technique is suboptimal: the two
paths have different convergence rates (i.e., one of the paths
might converge faster, and thus dominate any subsequent train-
ing epochs). Furthermore, standard backpropagation across
the whole network can also induce unpredictable interactions,
as we allow the weights to be modified at both paths simulta-
To avoid this issue, we perform interleaved training [45]:
at each mini-batch, data flow through the whole network, but
only the weights of one of the paths are updated. To do so,
we train the two paths in an alternating fashion. For example,
on even-numbered mini-batches the gradient descent only up-
dates the weights of the text path, whereas on odd-numbered
batches the weights of the metadata path.
This results in a more optimal, balanced network as the gra-
dient is only able to change one path at a time, thus avoiding
unwanted interactions. At the same time, the loss function is
calculated over the whole, combined, network. Notice that the
input does pass through the whole network.
bully aggressive spam normal overall (weighted avg.)
Prec Rec F1 AUC Prec Rec F1 AUC Prec Rec F1 AUC Prec Rec F1 AUC Prec Rec F1 AUC
NB 0.065 0.902 0.120 0.803 0.039 0.198 0.065 0.337 0.347 0.151 0.210 0.577 0.827 0.094 0.168 0.604 0.614 0.151 0.176 0.598
(STD) 0.001 0.018 0.002 0.017 0.006 0.027 0.010 0.157 0.018 0.008 0.009 0.004 0.022 0.002 0.003 0.005 0.013 0.003 0.003 0.003
RF 0.462 0.514 0.486 0.897 0.428 0.119 0.185 0.780 0.697 0.548 0.613 0.804 0.783 0.895 0.835 0.828 0.729 0.742 0.728 0.822
(STD) 0.022 0.023 0.020 0.009 0.096 0.021 0.033 0.019 0.009 0.011 0.008 0.004 0.004 0.006 0.004 0.003 0.006 0.005 0.005 0.004
Ensemble 0.405 0.731 0.521 0.841 0.475 0.070 0.121 0.534 0.697 0.557 0.620 0.723 0.797 0.872 0.833 0.767 0.738 0.738 0.728 0.748
(STD) 0.006 0.015 0.008 0.007 0.056 0.000 0.002 0.001 0.006 0.008 0.006 0.004 0.003 0.005 0.003 0.003 0.003 0.003 0.003 0.003
NN 0.270 0.640 0.380 0.901 0.110 0.300 0.160 0.820 0.810 0.680 0.740 0.792 0.610 0.570 0.59 0 0.745 0.700 0.630 0.660 0.815
(STD) 0.019 0.015 0.008 0.006 0.010 0.010 0.003 0.007 0.048 0.052 0.031 0.004 0.012 0.012 0.005 0.005 0.002 0.006 0.004 0.003
Table 14: Results on 4 classes: detecting aggressive vs. bullying behavior.
Neural network setup. For our implementation we use
Keras [52] with Theano [89] as back-end for the deep learning
models implementation. We use the functional API to imple-
ment our multi-input single-output model. Finally, we run the
experiments on a server that is equipped with three Tesla K40c
In terms of training, we use categorical cross-entropy as loss
function and Adam as the optimization function. A maximum
of 100 epochs is allowed, but we also employ a separate vali-
dation set to perform early stopping: training is interrupted if
the validation loss does not drop in 10 consecutive epochs and
the weights of the best epoch are restored.
6.2 Experimental Methodology
Experimentation Phases. Four setups are tested to assess the
feasibility of detecting abusive user behavior on Twitter:
4-classes classification: bully, aggressive, spam, and nor-
mal users.
3-classes after spam removal classification: bully, aggres-
sive, and normal users. This setup examines the case
where we filter out spam with a more elaborate technique
and attempt to detect the bullies and aggressors from nor-
mal users.
3-classes offensive classification: offensive (both bully-
ing and aggressive), spam, and normal users. With this
setup, we join aggressive and bullying users into one
class, in order to assess how well we can detect abusive
behavior overall.
2-classes offensive classification: same as in 3-classes of-
fensive classification but without spam.
Evaluation Metrics. For evaluation purposes in all experi-
mental phases, we examine standard machine learning perfor-
mance metrics: precision (prec), recall (rec), F1-score (F1),
and weighted area under the ROC curve (AUC), at the class
level and overall weighted average across classes. Also, the
accuracy value is presented. For all the experiments presented
next, we use the WEKA data mining toolkit and repeated (10
times) 10-fold cross validation [50], providing the relevant
standard deviation (STD). For the Neural Network setup, as
already has been stated, we use Keras with Theano.
6.3 Classification Results
Detecting Aggressive vs. Bullying Behavior. We examine
whether it is possible to distinguish between bully, aggressive,
spam, and normal users. Table 14 overviews the results ob-
tained with the considered classifiers, i.e., the best classifier
for each family of classifiers (i.e., Probabilistic, Tree-based,
Ensemble, Neural Network). In more detail, we observe that
with the Naive Bayes classifier we succeed to detect 90.2%
(STD = 0.018) of the bully cases which is especially high con-
sidering the small number of bully cases. Compared with the
results presented in [14], here we observe that by considering
additional textual features, such as POS and stylistic features,
the overall number of detected bully cases has been increased,
i.e., +47%. The highest number of the detected aggressive
users is achieved again with the Naive Bayes classifier, but yet
the rate is quite low (19.8%, STD=0.027). On the other hand,
the highest precision value for the aggressive case is achieved
with the Ensemble classifier, where again we observe an im-
portant increase on the achieved precision compared to the one
presented in [14], i.e., +18%.
As we also observe from Table 14, the considered classifiers
perform differently both across the four classes, as well as the
evaluation metrics (i.e., precision vs. recall). So, depending on
the task under consideration the most suitable classifier should
be selected. For instance, if the objective is to achieve high
true positive rate (i.e., high recall), then the Naive Bayes clas-
sifier should be used, while if the case is to achieve the best re-
sults in terms of the true positively predicted bully cases, then
the Random Forest classifier should be selected. The Random
Forest classifier strikes a balance among precision and recall
across the user classes, while at the same time it surpasses the
ensemble classifier in terms of the execution speed. The aver-
age precision with Random Forest is 72.9%, and the recall is
74.6%, while the accuracy is 74.1%.
From the confusion matrix that is presented in Table 15
(showing in percentage the distribution of the cases among the
classes based on the repeated - 10 times - 10-fold cross vali-
dation - the ‘total’ value indicates the rounded absolute num-
ber of cases that belong to each one of the considered classes)
we observe that a high percentage of misclassified cases falls
in the normal class which aligns with the human annotations
gathered during the crowdsourcing phase. Specifically, a high
confusion is observed between the spam and normal classes,
which may align with the idea that spammers try to be as close
to “real or normal users”. Quite interesting is the fact that
both bully and aggressive users are often classified as spam-
mers which is in alignment with [20] work which indicates
that spammers often exhibit behavior that could be considered
as aggressive or bullying (repeated posts with similar content,
mentions, or hashtags). We should note here that all the results
a b c d total classified as
89.52% 9.24% 0.23% 1.02% 787 a=normal
40.48% 54.84% 0.39% 4.29% 415 b=spam
41.16% 26.05% 11.86% 20.93% 43 c=aggressive
17.07% 25.34% 6.21% 51.38% 58 d=bully
900 326 12 65 1,303 total
Table 15: Confusion matrix: detecting aggressive vs. bullying be-
presented on the confusion matrices in this section have been
extracted based on the Random Forest classifier.
Table 14 also presents the results obtained based on the neu-
ral network setup. As far as the bully case we observe that with
the neural network setup we succeed to detect a quite satisfac-
tory number of bully users, i.e., 64%, while at the same time
we succeed to detect the highest number of aggressive users,
i.e., 30%, which is +10.2% compared to the Naive Bayes clas-
sifier. So, the neural network setup could be used in cases
where the focus is on detecting aggressive users when acting
on Twitter. The overall precision and recall values equal to
70% and 63%, respectively, with 63.1% accuracy.
Classifying After Spam Removal. In this experimental
phase, we want to explore whether the distinction between
bully/aggressive and normal users will be more evident after
applying a more sophisticated spam removal process in the
preprocessing step. To this end, we remove from our dataset all
the cases identified by the annotators as spam, and re-run the
four already considered models (i.e., Naive Bayes, Random
Forest, Ensemble, and Neural Network classifiers). Table 16
shows that for bully cases there is an increase in both the preci-
sion and recall values compared to the results obtained on the
four class classification (i.e., detecting aggressive vs. bullying
behavior). More specifically, with the Random Forest classi-
fier there is a +13.5% increase in the precision and a +12.2%
increase in the recall value.
For aggressors, considering the Random Forest classifier the
recall values are almost the same, indicating that further exam-
ination of this behavior is warranted in the future. In the Naive
Bayes case where we observe the highest overall AUC in the
aggressive case, i.e., 88%, we succeed to detect +3.7% more
aggressive users. Again, after removing the spam users from
our dataset, we succeed to detect the highest number of aggres-
sive users based on the neural network setup, i.e., 30%, with
a quite satisfactory AUC value, i.e., 78.2%. At the same time
we succeed to detect an important number of bully cases, i.e.,
71%, with 87.3% AUC value. Overall, the highest precision
and recall values are achieved with the ensemble classifier, and
equal to 90.2% and 97.1%, respectively, while the accuracy
equals to 90.2%. Considering the AUC of 88.1%, we believe
that with a more sophisticated spam detection applied on the
stream of tweets, our features and classification techniques can
perform even better at detecting bullies and aggressors and dis-
tinguishing them from the typical Twitter users.
Finally, from the confusion matrix presented in Table 17 we
observe that an impressive percentage of aggressive cases, i.e.,
60%, has been classified as bullies which indicates an impor-
tant confusion between them. In this sense, a more thorough
analysis should be conducted in order to select attributes that
are clearly separable between the bully and aggressive users.
Concerning the bully cases we see that an important percent-
age has been correctly classified, while 30.89% of them have
been characterized as aggressive users with only 7.68% to be
classified as normal.
Detecting Offensive Behavior. Here, the objective is to detect
offensive users in general, and thus we combine the bullying
and aggressive labels into a new label called offensive. Ta-
ble 18 presents the obtained results. In the offensive case, the
highest precision is obtained with the Random Forest classi-
fier (58.8%), while the best recall is achieved with the Naive
Bayes (91.4%), which is quite impressive for a baseline algo-
rithm. The ensemble classifier is quite comparable with the
Random Forest classifier in terms of precision and recall of
the offensive class. Finally, with the neural network setup we
achieve to detect 69% of the offensive users which is the sec-
ond highest number compared to the other machine learning
algorithms. The highest ROC area for the overall classification
is achieved with the Random Forest classifier (82.5%), which
indicates that the Random Forest model can quite successfully
discriminate between the offensive, normal, and spam users.
Table 19 presents the confusion matrix based on the clas-
sification results obtained after merging the offensive classes.
Similar to the above analysis (i.e., detecting aggressive vs. bul-
lying behavior), here the misclassified offensive cases fall al-
most in an equal percent to both the normal (i.e., 23.86%) and
spam (i.e., 20.99%) classes. Finally, we observe that almost
half of the spam cases have been classified as normal users.
Detecting Offensive Behavior After Spam Removal. The
simplest form of classification would be to distinguish between
offensive and normal users (i.e., without considering spam
users). Thus, similar to ‘Classifying After Spam Removal’ ex-
perimental setup, we remove all the cases identified by the an-
notators as spam, and proceed with a classification setup where
only the offensive and normal users are considered. Overall,
the best results are obtained with the Random Forest classifier,
with 93.4% precision, 93.7% recall, and 91.1% AUC. Look-
ing into each class in more detail, the highest number of offen-
sive cases is detected with the Naive Bayes, i.e., 93.7% (with
the neural network setup falling behind with 73%), while with
the Random Forest we succeed to detect 97.2% of the normal
users. Such basic classification model could be considered as
the initial step on the effort to detect offensive behavior, over-
all. A multi-class classification modeling can be performed as
a second step for a more detailed break-down of this behavior.
6.4 Machine Learning Classification Take-
Overall, our model performs reasonable in the four consid-
ered setups (Tables 14,16,18, and Detecting Offensive Behav-
ior After Spam Removal setup). This is justified if we take into
consideration the overall AUC of the ROC curves, which are
typically used to evaluate the performance of a machine learn-
ing algorithm [26] by testing the system on different points and
getting pairs of true positive (i.e., recall) against false positive
rates indicating the sensitivity of the model. The resulting area
bully aggressive normal overall (weighted avg.)
Prec Rec F1 AUC Prec Rec F1 AUC Prec Rec F1 AUC Prec Rec F1 AUC
NB 0.096 0.886 0.173 0.805 0.044 0.235 0.074 0.088 0.957 0.149 0.257 0.776 0.857 0.201 0.243 0.761
(STD) 0.002 0.017 0.004 0.011 0.003 0.021 0.006 0.122 0.005 0.004 0.006 0.011 0.004 0.004 0.006 0.010
RF 0.597 0.636 0.616 0.907 0.359 0.126 0.186 0.786 0.948 0.977 0.962 0.873 0.896 0.913 0.902 0.871
(STD) 0.016 0.029 0.019 0.005 0.038 0.012 0.017 0.019 0.003 0.001 0.002 0.003 0.003 0.002 0.002 0.003
Ensemble 0.525 0.748 0.617 0.892 0.388 0.072 0.121 0.668 0.958 0.971 0.965 0.892 0.902 0.913 0.901 0.881
(STD) 0.008 0.019 0.010 0.009 0.052 0.007 0.012 0.013 0.002 0.001 0.001 0.004 0.003 0.001 0.002 0.004
NN 0.270 0.710 0.390 0.873 0.130 0.300 0.180 0.782 0.980 0.800 0.880 0.899 0.890 0.770 0.810 0.853
(STD) 0.026 0.015 0.004 0.007 0.013 0.014 0.001 0.006 0.017 0.014 0.002 0.004 0.001 0.004 0.003 0.004
Table 16: Results on 3 classes: classifying after spam removal.
a b c total classified as
0.66% 1.63% 97.71% 787 a=normal
13.26% 26.74% 60.00% 43 b=aggressive
7.68% 61.43% 30.89% 58 c=bully
812 17 59 888 total
Table 17: Confusion matrix: classifying after spam removal.
under the ROC curve can be read as the probability of a clas-
sifier correctly ranking a random positive case higher than a
random negative case.
Specifically, in the aggressor case, even though the recall
value is low, the AUC is quite high because the false positive
rate is especially low, with 0.003 and 0.009 for the 4-classes
and 3-classes after spam removal classification (based on the
Random Forest classifier), respectively. We note that avoid-
ing false positives is crucial to the successful deployment of
any automated system aiming to deal with aggressive behav-
ior. Overall, given that in the four experimental setups the per-
formance is different in terms of the precision and recall values
among the considered classification methods, the selection of
the model to be used should be based on the system that one
is envisioned to develop. If the system to be developed will be
free of any human intervention (i.e., fully automated), then the
platform developer could opt for a model that performs best in
terms of the precision. On the other hand, if the system will
contain a second level of checks, which involves human ed-
itors (i.e., humans who will monitor the detected/flagged be-
haviors), then the platform developer could opt for a model
with a higher recall value. In this case, the classification sys-
tem’s results would be fed to a human-monitored system for
thorough evaluation of the suspected users and final decision
if to suspend them or not, thus reducing false positives. For in-
stance, in our case, in the four classes classification setup, the
neural networks method can be used for detecting aggressive
users in a human-monitored system, while on the contrary, the
Random Forest classifier could be used to detect bully users
when developing a system without any human intervention.
Finally, Table 20 shows the top 12 features for each setup
based on information gain. Overall, in all setups the most
contributing features tend to be the user- and network-based,
which describe the activity and connectivity of a user in the
network. As far as the new-considered features (i.e., POS and
stylistic features) we observe that in the 4- and 3-classes offen-
sive experiments the number of used verbs in users’ tweets is
among the top contributed features. In the 3- (after removing
the spam users from our dataset) and 2-classes experiments the
average words length feature plays an important role during
the classification process, while in the 2-classes experiment
also the average words per sentence as well as the number of
adjectives are quite important. All such features indicate that
the study of the linguistic style used to written language can
importantly contribute in better distinguishing among the dif-
ferent user behaviors.
We should note that for brevity, in this section, we presented
the confusion matrices and the top contributed features based
on the Random Forest classifier only, since with the Random
Forest we succeeded a balance between the precision and re-
call values across all classes and higher overall AUC value in
the three out of four experimental phases.
7 Abusive Behavior on Twitter: User
vs. Platform Reaction
In the previous sections, we investigated users involved in the
Gamergate community of Twitter and compared them with
the activity of users involved in the BBCpay and NBA top-
ics. We studied their posting behavior through various features
and showed that it is feasible to train a machine learning algo-
rithm to automatically detect bullies and aggressors on Twit-
ter. However, it is still unclear how abusers are handled by
the Twitter platform. In particular, in this section we aim to
address the following open questions:
What is the Twitter user account status and how can we
measure it?
What does this status imply for a user and what is the
distribution of different statuses among the user commu-
nities examined, i.e., Gamergate, BBCpay, and NBA?
What are the characteristics of users who are suspended
from the platform and how do they compare with users
who delete their Twitter account?
Can we emulate the Twitter account suspension mecha-
nism using typical machine learning methods?
How effective is the recent Twitter effort for curving abu-
sive behavior?
7.1 Users Communities vs. Twitter Statuses
A Twitter user can be in one of the following three sta-
tuses: (i) active, (ii) deleted, or (iii) suspended. Typically,
offensive spam normal overall (weighted avg.)
Prec Rec F1 AUC Prec Rec F1 AUC Prec Rec F1 AUC Prec Rec F1 AUC
NB 0.092 0.914 0.168 0.716 0.364 0.176 0.237 0.589 0.832 0.105 0.186 0.614 0.626 0.190 0.201 0.614
(STD) 0.002 0.015 0.004 0.018 0.019 0.019 0.020 0.008 0.015 0.004 0.007 0.008 0.012 0.005 0.006 0.007
RF 0.588 0.552 0.569 0.877 0.713 0.545 0.618 0.805 0.788 0.891 0.836 0.829 0.748 0.755 0.746 0.825
(STD) 0.021 0.023 0.020 0.008 0.011 0.016 0.014 0.003 0.006 0.003 0.004 0.003 0.008 0.007 0.008 0.003
Ensemble 0.556 0.648 0.599 0.855 0.690 0.558 0.617 0.786 0.799 0.862 0.829 0.825 0.745 0.749 0.744 0.815
(STD) 0.007 0.020 0.012 0.010 0.013 0.010 0.010 0.004 0.004 0.006 0.004 0.003 0.006 0.006 0.006 0.003
NN 0.330 0.690 0.450 0.883 0.610 0.610 0.610 0.767 0.820 0.700 0.760 0.797 0.710 0.670 0.690 0.816
(STD) 0.006 0.012 0.011 0.005 0.004 0.006 0.008 0.006 0.004 0.005 0.008 0.004 0.004 0.005 0.005 0.003
Table 18: Results on 3 classes: detecting offensive behavior.
a b c total classified as
89.15% 8.87% 1.98% 787 a=normal
39.86% 54.49% 5.65% 415 b=spam
23.86% 20.99% 55.15% 101 c=offensive
891 317 95 1,303 total
Table 19: Confusion matrix: detecting offensive behavior.
Twitter suspends an account (temporarily or even permanently,
in some cases) if it has been hijacked/compromised, is con-
sidered spam/fake, or if it is abusive [94]. A user account is
deleted if the user himself, for his own personal reasons, deac-
tivates his account.
In order to examine the differences between these three sta-
tuses and in relation to the aggressive behavior overall, we ini-
tially selected a random sample of 40k(10kfrom each dataset)
users from the Gamergate, BBCpay, NBA, and baseline users
to check their current (i.e., September 2018) Twitter status.
The status of each user account was checked using a mecha-
nism that queried the Twitter API for each user and examined
the error code responses returned: code 63 corresponds to a
suspended user account and code 50 corresponds to a deleted
Table 21 shows the distribution of statuses in the four con-
sidered datasets (i.e., baseline, Gamergate, NBA, and BBC-
pay). We observe that baseline and Gamergate users tend
to delete their accounts by choice rather than get suspended.
However, baseline users are more prone to deletion (25.86%)
of their accounts in contrast to the Gamergate users (16.22%).
In contrast, Gamergate users tend to get suspended more often
than baseline users (11.29% vs. 8.43%), which aligns with the
offensive behavior observed in this community. For the NBA
and BBCpay, the percentage of active users is higher than that
of Gamergate and baseline users, indicating a set of users ac-
tively involved in the topics of the community, and in partic-
ular of the newly formed BBCpay topic. In fact, these two
communities also have a lower rate of deleted users, perhaps
indicating more satisfied users.
However, the suspended users of these two communities
reach a higher portion than baseline, and closer to Gamergate’s
level. Given our previous observations on the posting behav-
ior of Gamergate users, someone would expect a high number
of suspensions only in the Gamergate users, who are hyper-
focused around a somewhat niche topic. Though this could
also be justified for the BBCpay community, with some users
expressing themselves in an overly aggressive or abusive fash-
ion, it would not be expected for the users in the NBA commu-
nity. Since the baseline and NBA communities are less prone
to post abusive content, the suspension rates in the NBA par-
ticipants could be due to general spam activity.
7.2 Active, Suspended, and Deleted User Ac-
To understand how active, suspended, and deleted users dif-
fer in activity, here we compare each of these user statuses for
all the already considered user communities, i.e., Gamergate,
BBCpay, and NBA, as well as baseline users based on an in-
dicative subset of user (i.e., number of lists, posts, favorites,
account age), text (i.e., number of hashtags, URLs, adjectives,
sentiment), and network (i.e., number of followers - the same
applies for the number of friends) features.
Since users are suspended because their activity violates
Twitter rules, while users delete their account for their own
reasons, we would expect suspended users to differ from the
deleted users, at least at some of the aforementioned consid-
ered attributes. To examine the significance of differences
among the distributions presented next, we use the two-sample
Kolmogorov-Smirnov test. We consider as statistically signif-
icant all cases with p < 0.01.
Account Age, Followers, and Friends. Figure 11a shows
that users who delete their accounts have been on the plat-
form longer than suspended users (D= 0.21404). Surpris-
ingly, for the less amount of time their account was active,
suspended users managed to become more popular and thus
have more followers (Figure 11b) and friends (the figure has
been omitted) than the deleted users. The difference among
their distributions is statistically significant with D= 0.26208
and D= 0.22731 for the followers and friends count, respec-
tively. The fact that the deleted users have fewer followers and
friends than suspended users, implies they have less support
from their social network. On the contrary, high popularity for
suspended users could have helped them attract and create ad-
ditional activity on Twitter and could be a reason for delaying
the suspension of such highly engaging, and even inflamma-
tory, users.
Posts, Lists, and Favorites. Figures 11c,11d, and 11e show
the distribution of the number of posts, participated lists, and
favorites, respectively, made by the active, suspended, and
deleted users. We observe the suspended users to be more ac-
tive than the deleted users, with respect to the number of posted
tweets and participated lists (D= 0.1252 and D= 0.15127,
respectively). Also, the deleted users have an extremely sim-
Experiment Features (preserving order of contribution)
4-classes #friends (11.68%), reciprocity (11.20%), #followers (10.94%)
#followers/#friends (9.62%), interarrival (9.38%), #lists (9.18%)
hubs (9.13%), #URLs (7.74%), #hashtags (6.99%)
authority (6.24%), #verbs (4.38%), clustering coef. (3.52%)
3-classes (spam removal) account age (12.54%), #followers/#friends (11.38%), #friends (10.90%)
hub (10.06%), interarrival (10.06%), reciprocity (9.66%), #lists (8.71%)
#posts (8.66%), #hashtags (5.39%), avg. words length (4.53%)
#followers (4.34%), #URLs (3.77%)
3-classes (offensive) #friends (11.64%), reciprocity (10.77%), #followers (10.62%)
#followers/#friends (9.44%), interarrival (9.16%), #lists (8.68%)
hubs (8.20%), #URLs (7.37%), acount age (7.84%), #hashtags (6.46%)
authority (5.87%), #verbs (3.95%)
2-classes (offensive - without spam) account age (16.46%), interarrival (12.21%), #friends (12.07%)
#lists (11.81%), #followers/#friends (10.00%), hubs (8.76%)
#posts (8.13%), #hashtags (6.60%), avg. words length (4.89%)
#URLs (3.66%), avg. words per sentence (3.46%), #adjectives (1.95%)
Table 20: Features evaluation for the four different experimental phases.
(a) Account age (b) Followers (c) Posts (d) Lists
(e) Favorites (f) Sentiment (g) Adjectives (h) Hashtags
Figure 11: CDF plots for the active, suspended, and deleted users for the: (a) Account age, (b) Followers, (c) Posts, (d) Lists, (e) Favorites, (f)
Sentiment, (g) Adjectives, (h) Hashtags.
active deleted suspended
Baseline 65.71% 25.86% 8.43%
Gamergate 71.86% 16.22% 11.29%
NBA 78.61% 9.14% 12.25%
BBCpay 79.79% 10.17% 10.05%
Table 21: Distribution of Twitter statuses on Sept 2018.
ilar behavior with the active users. However, deleted users
exhibit higher activity in terms of the favorited tweets than the
suspended (D= 0.24939) and active users (D= 0.1118).
Sentiment and Adjectives. Figure 11f shows similar behav-
ior in terms of the expressed negative sentiments for the sus-
pended and deleted users. On the other hand, the deleted users
tend to express with more positive sentiments than the sus-
pended users, with the active users to express in the most pos-
itive way with respect to sentiment. Overall, the mean value
of the expressed sentiment for the active users equals to 0.287,
for the suspended users is 0.046, while for the deleted users
equals to 0.092, with the difference in their distributions to be
statistically significant.
From Figure 11g we observe that suspended users tend to
use a higher number of adjectives in their posts than the ac-
tive and deleted accounts. The mean (STD) values for the
active/suspended/deleted users are 0.43 (1.63), 0.96 (6.15),
and 15 (227), respectively. Adjectives are words that modify
(describe) nouns and so suspended users maybe use them in
Status Popular hashtags
Active #trump, #loveisland, #nbasummerleague, #business
#brexit, #womenshistorymonth, #racism, #bullying
Suspended #gamergate, #ftm, #femaletomale, #whitegenocide
#porn, #brexit, #rape, #stupidity, #sexcam
Deleted #bullying, #rapefugees, #racism, #internationalmensday
#womenshistorymonth, #voteforteamslayes, #fakenews
Table 22: Popular hashtags used from active, suspended, and deleted
user accounts.
higher percentage in their effort to ‘attack’ others. Again, here
the differences in distributions between deleted and suspended
users are statistically significant with D= 0.079577.
Hashtags and URLs. Figure 11h shows that the suspended
users use a higher number of hashtags in their tweets than the
deleted users (D= 0.26011). Two reasons for the hashtags
usage are to: (i) categorize posts and make the content search-
able, and (ii) increase the visibility of the posts and encourage
the online audience to join the conversation. Thus, a higher
number of hashtags used from the suspended users can be jus-
tified by the fact that in most of the cases suspended users
are either spammers or exhibit abusive behavior and this is
a way to increase the visibility of their messages. The low-
est number of hashtag use is observed from the active user
accounts, with the difference in the distributions with the sus-
pended and deleted user statuses to be statistically significant
(D= 0.39277 and D= 0.13266, respectively).
Finally, suspended users tend to post more URLs than the
deleted users which is again a way to attract more audience in
reading their posts, or during a spamming effort. The mean
(STD) values for the suspended and deleted users are 0.778
(0.646) and 0.563 (0.587), respectively. The difference in dis-
tributions are statistically significant with D= 0.14646. Com-
pared to the other user statuses, similar to the use of hashtags,
active users tend to share the lowest number of URLs to their
social network (the mean and STD values are 0.395 and 0.534,
Popular Hashtags per Status. Up to now, we discussed what
differences exist between active, suspended, and deleted user
accounts based on a set of attributes, either user or profile-
based, text-based, or network-based. Next, we investigate in
more depth the type of content posted by each type of user
(based on account status), with a particular focus on the hash-
tags included in their tweets. From Table 22, we observe
that deleted users mainly discuss about important social topics,
such as the racism and immigrants. After a manual inspection
of their tweets, it seems that in many cases there is a supportive
attitude from the deleted users to the ‘victims’ related to these
phenomena (e.g., ‘The ground you grew on doesn’t make you
holy - what matters is that you were a decent human being
#racism #ilmfest’).
In the case of the suspended users, based on the most popu-
lar hashtags, we observe discussions around topics which often
stimulate aggressive behaviors, such as the discussions about
the UK leaving the EU (#brexit). As it was also expected, the
suspended users are often involved in spam behavior, which in
some cases is related to the publishing of inappropriate con-
tent (e.g., #porn, #sexcam). Therefore, suspended and deleted
users tend to follow different directions in the content of the
posted tweets. Finally, active users discuss a variety of topics,
such as the NBA summer league, the events that take place
under Trump’s governance, or about popular TV shows (e.g.,
#loveisland). Also, they seem to touch sensitive issues, such as
racism and bullying (e.g., ‘If someone is #bullying you, knock
them the fuck out. Don’t cry about it on the internet.’, ‘Help
your child practice what to say to a bully so he or she will be
prepared.’). Of course, as it is quite expected, there are active
users who still express with aggression (e.g., ‘Disgusted with
@Morrisons after watching #WarOnWaste! To be a morally
corrupt idiots is one thing.’) or they post inappropriate content
bypassing Twitter’s suspension mechanism.
7.3 Emulating the Twitter Suspension Engine
Having gained an overview of the homogeneity or common-
alities users have according to their Twitter status, here we in-
vestigate if the features we have analyzed so far are meaningful
and correlated with account statuses, and more importantly, if
they can be used to automatically classify users. Additionally,
our effort to emulate the suspension engine of Twitter consti-
tutes a precursor for the next section which checks for more
snapshots how the suspension of Twitter aligns with what our
classifier predicts, providing further validation of our annota-
tion and classification effort. Overall, such efforts lend cre-
dence to our feature selection, and the overall classification
effort of the previous sections.
To proceed with our analysis, we will use the labels ex-
tracted from the account statuses (active, deleted, suspended),
in contrast to the previous classification effort which attempted
to detect bullies, aggressive, and normal users. To this end, we
perform a supervised classification task using the above fea-
tures as inputs and using the three statuses as labels, in an at-
tempt to emulate the Twitter suspension engine. The study is
performed on the 1,303 annotated users (we checked users’
statuses on September 2018). This exercise helps us under-
stand if the features analyzed so far are predictive of the way
users select to delete their accounts, or that Twitter decides to
suspend users.
For the classification task, we proceed with the Random For-
est classifier as it performs very well with respect to accuracy
and AUC, as shown in the previous experiments. It is also
very fast to train such a classifier and does not require a large
set of examples to do so. In contrast, Twitter has available
millions of examples to be used for training its suspension en-
gine. Therefore, it could more readily train and test a Neural
Network that can outperform typical machine learning algo-
rithms given enough training examples and computational re-
sources. For the next experiments we use the WEKA data min-
ing toolkit and repeated (10 times) 10-fold cross validation.
From Table 23 we observe that we succeed to detect 87.3%
of the deleted accounts and 82.1% of the suspended ones. The
overall precision and recall values equal to 97.6% and 97.7%,
respectively, with 97.6% accuracy, 0.888 kappa, and 99.5%
AUC value. From the confusion matrix (Table 24), we observe
Prec Rec F1 AUC
active 0.979 0.996 0.987 0.995
(STD) 0.003 0.001 0.001 0.002
deleted 0.996 0.873 0.930 0.994
(STD) 0.008 0.031 0.017 0.005
suspended 0.935 0.821 0.874 0.997
(STD) 0.008 0.023 0.013 0.001
overall (avg.) 0.976 0.977 0.976 0.995
(STD) 0.002 0.002 0.002 0.002
Table 23: Status-based classification results.
a b c classified as
99.56% 0.42% 0.02% a=active
17.92% 82.08% 0.00% b=suspended
11.02% 1.69% 87.29% c=deleted
Table 24: Status-based confusion matrix.
Features (preserving order of importance)
account age (16.19%), interarrival (11.95%), hubs (11.41%), #followers (11.28%)
#friends (9.39%), #lists (8.31%), authority (6.73%), #favorites (6.48%), #posts (6.19%)
clustering coef. (4.74%), eigenvector centrality (4.77%), #URLs (2.57%)
Table 25: Status-based features evaluation.
that in both the deleted and suspended statuses the misclassi-
fied cases mostly fall in the active class, with the deleted and
suspended classes to be almost clearly separable. Finally, Ta-
ble 25 presents the top 12 contributed features during the clas-
sification process. Here, we observe again that the user- and
network-based features are among the top most contributing.
From these results, we conclude that our features are mean-
ingful in studying abusive behavior and in detecting users that
are suspicious for suspension by Twitter, or that are in risk of
deleting their account.
7.4 Suppression of Offensive Behavior by Twit-
Thus far, we saw what differences exist between Twitter sta-
tuses, by analyzing the users involved in the crawled commu-
nities for a set of features. We also tested whether these fea-
tures are suitable for distinguishing between account statuses
in an automatic fashion using a machine learning method.
Next, we investigate what is the association between the la-
bels given to users by our annotators (aggressive, bully, spam,
and normal), and the account status that each of these users has
(active, deleted, suspended). In fact, we study this association
for three different time periods, of about 10-13 months apart:
at the end of November 2016, December 2017, and Septem-
ber 2018. For this investigation we focus on the data collected
from the Gamergate and baseline users.
Tables 26a,26b, and 26c show the breakdown of account
statuses for each label for the three time periods. From the
more recent time period (September 2018), we observe that a
large number of offensive users has been suspended from Twit-
ter: 55.17% of bullies and 51.16% of aggressors labeled in our
dataset have been suspended. These numbers are in stark con-
trast to what we have measured in the previous two snapshots
in the last two years. In fact, for the previous snapshot (De-
cember 2017) the majority of aggressive or bully users in our
active deleted suspended
bully 67.24% 32.76% 0.00%
aggressive 65.12% 20.93% 13.95%
spam 71.57% 7.71% 20.72%
normal 86.53% 5.72% 7.75%
(a) Status check on Nov 2016.
active deleted suspended
bully 55.17% 37.93% 6.90%
aggressive 53.49% 23.26% 23.25%
spam 50.12% 12.53% 37.35%
normal 77.38% 8.01% 14.61%
(b) Status check on Dec 2017.
active deleted suspended
bully 5.17% 39.66% 55.17%
aggressive 25.58% 23.26% 51.16%
spam 49.63% 11.57% 38.80%
normal 68.87% 9.02% 22.11%
(c) Status check on Sept 2018
Table 26: Distribution of users’ behaviors in Twitter statuses.
dataset had suffered no consequences from Twitter: 53.49%
of aggressive and 55.17% of cyberbullying accounts were still
However, in the last snapshot, only 5.17% of bully users
and only 25.58% of aggressive users are still active. These
results lend credence to our annotation process, the analysis
performed, and offer validation to our observations: a large
majority of the accounts that had been labeled as bullies or
aggressive by our annotators were indeed deemed inappropri-
ate by Twitter and were suspended. And another large portion
of such accounts was proactive enough to delete their account
(perhaps in an effort to evade suspension).
The number of the deleted accounts between the three con-
sidered time periods, and especially between Dec. 2017 and
Sept. 2018, do not exhibit important changes. Overall, we ob-
serve that bullies tend to delete more their accounts proactively
(Sept. 2018: 39.66% of bully users over 23.26% of aggressive
users) in relation to the aggressive users. Comparing the sta-
tuses of aggressive and bullying users between the first and the
last time periods, we see an increase of 37.21% and 55.17%,
respectively, in the percentage of those suspended. This is in
alignment with Twitter’s recent efforts to combat harassment
cases [78], for instance, by preventing suspended users from
creating new accounts [72], or temporarily limiting users for
abusive behavior [88]. Perhaps the increased number of the
deleted accounts is an attempt from bully users to prevent their
suspension, since they could return later and re-enable their
account. Overall, the high suspension rate of offensive users
indicates that indeed Twitter has increased its efforts to better
tackle abusive behavior on the platform.
We could also expect a higher suspension rate for the users
annotated as spammers. However, this is not the case here. In-
deed, for the first two snapshots, spammers are suspended in a
higher rate than other types of users. In fact, from November
2016 to December 2017 there is a 16.63% increase of the sus-
pended spam accounts. However, even though in September
2018 the suspension rate is maintained at the same levels as
in December 2017 (39%), this is lower when compared to the
rate observed for bully and aggressive users (55% and 51%,
respectively). This result indicates that for the last time pe-
riod examined, Twitter probably focused more on ‘cleaning’
the platform from abusive behavior and users, rather spam ac-
8 Related Work
Previous work has presented several methods geared to mea-
sure and detect abusive behavior in online social networks and
other platforms. Note that “abuse” may indicate a wide range
of abnormal behaviors, including cyberbullying, sexual ex-
ploitation, aggressive and/or offensive expression. In this sec-
tion, we review related work, focusing on two specific forms
of abusive behavior, i.e., cyberbullying and cyberaggression,
given users’ online activity in social media.
Abusive Behavior in Social Media. Previous work has fo-
cused on detecting abusive behavior by considering online ac-
tivity patterns. Djuric et al. [29] distinguish hate-related com-
ments on Yahoo Finance with word embeddings. In [21] the
authors aim to detect highly probable users in producing offen-
sive content in YouTube comments. In their method, a set of
different features is incorporated, either stylish, structural, or
content-specific ones, such as the appearance of words with all
uppercases, the ratio of imperative sentences, or users’ sexual
orientation. Nobata et al. [67] use a machine learning based
method to perform hate speech detection on Yahoo Finance
and News data. Since community-based question answering
platforms are rich sources of information around a variety of
topics, Kayes et al. [51] focus on the reported rule violations
in Yahoo Answers and they find that users tend to flag abu-
sive content in an overwhelmingly correct way (as confirmed
by human annotators). Also, some users significantly deviate
from community norms, posting a large amount of content that
is flagged as abusive. Through careful feature extraction, they
also show that it is possible to use machine learning methods
to predict the users to be suspended.
Cyberbullying in Social Media. Focusing more on cyberbul-
lying behaviors, Dinakar et al. [28] initially decompose such
a phenomenon into a set of sensitive topics, i.e., race, cul-
ture, sexuality, and intelligence. Then, they analyze YouTube
comments from controversial videos based on a bag-of-words-
driven text classification. Also, [25] presents a method which
automatically detects bully users on YouTube based on a
“bulliness” score. Hee et al. [97] aim to detect fine-grained
types of cyberbullying, e.g., threats and insults, with the con-
sideration of linguistic characteristics in cyberbullying related
content extracted from In the conducted analysis they
consider three types of possible participants in a cyberbully-
ing conversation, i.e., victim, harasser, and bystander which
is further decomposed to bystander-defenders and bystander-
assistants, who support, respectively, the victim or the ha-
rasser. In [79], Sanchez et al. exploit Twitter messages to
detect bullying cases which are specifically related to the gen-
der bullying phenomenon. Hosseinmardi et al. [48], in addi-
tion to the comments posted on Instagram, they also consider
the corresponding images in an effort to detect and distinguish
between cyberbullying and cyberaggression. Finally, Sarava-
naraj et al. [80] detect cyberbullying words and rumor texts on
Twitter, as well as demographics about bullies such as their
name, age, and gender.
Abusive Incidents in Game Communities. The rise of cy-
berbullying and abusive incidents, in general, is also evi-
dent in online game communities. Since these communities
are widely used by people of all ages, such a phenomenon
has attracted the interest of the research community. For in-
stance, [57] studies cyberbullying and other toxic behaviors in
team competition online games in an effort to detect, prevent,
and counter-act toxic behavior. In [34], Fox et al. investigate
the prevalence of sexism in online game communities finding
personality traits, demographic variables, and levels of game-
play predicted sexist attitudes towards women who play video
Abusive Detection Methods. Various supervised approaches
have been used for monitoring different instances of online
abusive behaviors. For instance, authors in [67] use a regres-
sion model, whereas [25,28,97] rely on other methods like
Naive Bayes, Support Vector Machines (SVM), and Decision
Trees (J48). In contrast, Hosseinmardi et al. [47] use a graph-
based approach based on likes and comments to build bipartite
graphs and identify negative behavior. A similar, graph-based
approach is also used in [48]. In all previous works a variety
of attributes has been exploited in an effort to detect accurately
harassment instances. Text-related features, such as punctua-
tion, URLs, part-of-speech, n-grams, Bag of Words (BoW),
lexical features that rely on dictionaries of offensive words,
and user-related ones, e.g., user’s membership duration activ-
ity, number of friends/followers, are among the most popular
Remarks. This article presents in a unified way and, more
importantly, extends our previous work on aggressive behav-
ior in Twitter, published in [15,13,12]. Compared to the lit-
erature, we advance the state-of-the-art on cyberbullying and
cyberaggression analysis and detection along the following di-
Propose a robust methodology for extracting user, text,
and network features on Twitter, beyond what has been
shown in the past.
Analyze user tweets, individually and in groups, and ex-
tract appropriate features connecting user behavior with a
tendency of aggression or bullying.
Investigate Gamergate and BBC gender pay controversies
and compare their activity and in-depth topics of discus-
sion with users discussing normal topics (e.g., NBA).
Compare performance of various types of machine learn-
ing algorithms, including random forests and neural net-
works, for the detection of bullying and aggression on
Twitter under different setups.
Contrast the performance of the best machine learning
method with the suspension and deletion of offensive
users from Twitter through time.
9 Discussion & Conclusion
Although the digital revolution and the rise of social media en-
abled great advances in communication platforms and social
interactions, they also enable wider proliferation of harmful
behavior. Unfortunately, effective tools for detecting harmful
actions are scarce, as this type of behavior is often ambigu-
ous in nature and/or exhibited via seemingly superficial com-
ments and criticisms. Even now that Twitter has increased its
efforts to address abusive phenomena in the platform, there
are still important cases that stay under the radar, e.g., [68].
Aiming to address this gap, in this paper, we analyzed the be-
havioral patterns exhibited by abusive users and their differ-
ences from other Twitter user categories, i.e., random users,
community-related, and users posting tweets around a trend-
ing topic. We then presented a novel system geared towards
automatically classifying two specific types of offensive online
behavior, i.e., cyberbullying and cyberaggression. Finally, we
analyzed Twitter’s current mechanism for suspending users,
by understanding the differences that exist among the different
user categories and then studying Twitter’s reaction against ag-
gressive and bullying behaviors.
In the next paragraphs, we highlight the main observations
from the present study and discuss how these outcomes help
address the open research questions identified in the beginning
of the article.
RQ1: What characteristics differentiate abusive from nor-
mal users based on their activity on diverse Twitter com-
munities? In order to address this question, we studied the
behavioral patterns of the different user categories, analyzing
both activity and emotional characteristics. Specifically, we
studied the properties of users tweeting about the Gamergate
controversy (an especially hate-prone community), the BBC
gender pay controversy (a trending topic with hate and abu-
sive elements), NBA, as well as random cases. We observed
that users who participated in discussions around specific top-
ics, i.e., Gamergate, BBC gender pay controversy, or the NBA,
have longer-running accounts on Twitter than baseline or ran-
dom users, which shows the tendency of users with long activ-
ity on Twitter to participate in active and popular topics/issues.
Additionally, these three user groups are more active in
terms of their posting activity and used hashtags than base-
line users. Also, users involved in the Gamergate controversy
have more hashtags in their tweets, possibly aiming to further
disseminate their ideas and views. We discovered that the sub-
ject of tweets involved in the Gamergate is seemingly more
offensive than that of the baseline and NBA participants, but
more similar to the BBCpay users whose posts have a more
aggressive connotation after the revealing of disparity in pay
between the male and female top earners in the BBC. Over-
all, the Gamergate community seems to be very active and
well established through the years, with a more aggressive be-
havior than the BBCpay and NBA communities, while its ac-
tivity on Twitter is especially intense. In general, and using
topic detection methods like LDA, users from each commu-
nity discuss a variety of topics, but especially the one of fo-
cus to each community (e.g., BBCpay focuses on inequality in
salaries, as well as Brexit and other matters of political lean-
ing, whereas Gamergate focuses on the specific controversy,
as well as socio-political issues such as the ‘Blacklivesmatter’
movement, LGBT rights, etc.).
Based on this preliminary analysis of user groups on Twit-
ter, we proceeded with an in-depth investigation of two spe-
cific abusive behaviors on Twitter, i.e., cyberbullying and cy-
beraggression. We relied on crowdworkers to label 1.5kusers
as normal, spammers, aggressive, or bullies, from a corpus of
10ktweets they posted over a period of 3 months (distilled
from a larger set of 1.6Mtweets). For this annotated dataset,
we investigated 38 features from 3types of attributes (user-,
text-, and network-based) characterizing such behavior. We
found that bully users organize their attacks against impor-
tant and sensitive societal issues, such as feminism, religion,
and politics, using aggressive and in some cases insulting lan-
guage. Aggressive users express their negativity on popular
topics, such as ‘Brexit’, ‘maga’, etc. Also, such users have
distinct behavior with respect to lists they participate, number
of URLs and hashtags they use in their tweets. In addition, ag-
gressive users express with high negative sentiment, and they
use different parts of speech (adverbs, nouns and verbs) to em-
phasize their negativity, in comparison to normal users, or even
bullies, who make their arguments using more adjectives and
verbs. Furthermore, aggressive and bully users have a clearly
different behavior than normal or spam users with respect to
how many words they use in their tweets and how long these
words are.
We found that bullies are less popular than normal users
(fewer followers/friends, lower hub, authority, eigenvector
scores) and participate in few communities. Interestingly, bul-
lies and aggressive users exhibit higher network reciprocity
(i.e., they tend to follow-back someone who follows them),
but bully users are the least central in the network, with ag-
gressive users being somewhat similar to normal users with
respect to centrality. Aggressive users show similar behavior
with spammers in terms of the number of followers, friends,
and hub scores. Similar to bullies, they also do not post a lot
of tweets, but exhibit a small response time between postings,
and often use hashtags and URLs in their tweets. They have
also been on Twitter for a long time, however, their posts seem
to be more negative in sentiment than bullies or normal users.
On the other hand, normal users are quite popular with respect
to number of followers, friends, hubs, authorities. They partic-
ipate in many topical lists and use few hashtags and URLs.
RQ2: Can we design a machine learning methodology to
automatically and effectively detect abusive behavior and
individuals? Following our analysis of user behavior, we pro-
ceeded to answer the second research question. Working to-
wards this goal, we extracted various user, text and network
features from the tweeting activity and social network of users.
Even though user- and text-based features have been consid-
ered extensively in past works, only a limited number of net-
work features has been used (e.g., number of followers and
friends) mainly due to the difficulties in building users’ social
network based on the available APIs. In the present work, an
extensive list of network-based features was used, such as reci-
procity, centrality scores, and community related measures.
Also, new text-based features were considered such as part-
of-speech and stylistic ones.
These features were then used to train classifiers for auto-
matic detection of these behaviors. We compared state-of-the-
art methods such as probabilistic, tree-based, and ensemble
classifiers like Naive Bayes and Random Forest, as well as
deep neural networks, aiming to identify the most optimal one
in terms of performance and training time. We found that tradi-
tional methods actually outperform newer ones in most cases,
like neural networks, in terms of time and accuracy due to the
limited size of the annotated datasets used for such complex
tasks. Moreover, to assess how well we can detect abusive be-
havior overall, we proceeded with a unified classification pro-
cess, where the bullying and aggressive cases were merged to
the ‘offensive’ class.
While prior work almost exclusively focused on user- and
text-based features (e.g., linguistics, sentiment, membership
duration), we performed a thorough analysis of network-based
features and found them to be very useful, as they actually
are the most effective for classifying aggressive user behav-
ior (half of the top-12 features in discriminatory power are
network-based). Text-based features, somewhat surprisingly,
do not contribute as much to the detection of aggression, with
an exception of tweet characteristics, such as number of URLs,
hashtags, and average words length. However, such features
appeared to be useful when the spam class was removed, and
the focus on classification was placed on distinguishing be-
tween the aggressive, bully, and normal users. In general, we
found that aggressive users are more difficult to be character-
ized and identified using a machine learning classifier than bul-
lies, since sometimes they behave like bullies, but other times
as normal or spam users. This could be the main reason for
their delayed suspension.
RQ3: How has Twitter addressed the problem of abusive
users in its platform? To complete our study, we moved on
to answer the third research question. In particular, we were
interested in the characteristics of users who were suspended
and if we could approximate the suspension mechanism of
Twitter with our basic machine learning method. To better
understand how abusive users are currently handled by Twit-
ter, we performed an in-depth analysis of the status of users’
accounts who posted about the three topics under investigation
(i.e., Gamergate, BBCpay, and NBA) and compared them with
random Twitter users. We did this investigation for three time
snapshots. Surprisingly, we found that baseline and Gamer-
gate users tend to delete more often their accounts by choice
rather than get suspended, and this is done more often than
NBA or BBCpay users. However, users in Gamergate tend to
get suspended more often than baseline users. The users from
the other two communities tend to be more active, but they
also present a high rate of suspension of accounts on par with
Gamergate’s level.
Furthermore, we investigated users’ properties with respect
to their account status to understand what may have led to sus-
pension of some of them, but not all of them. Even though
suspended users in Gamergate are expressing more aggressive
and repulsive emotions, and offensive language than baseline
users, they tend to become more popular and more active in
terms of their posted tweets. In general, suspended users’ top-
ics of interest included controversial topics such as gamergate
and brexit, as well as spam-related content. In fact, high popu-
larity for suspended users could have delayed their suspension,
as they attract and create additional activity on Twitter. On the
contrary, deleted users have fewer friends and followers than
suspended users, which implies they have less support from
their social network. Some of these users seem to express in-
terest in topics such as racism, bullying, and women, but can
also be aggressive via content related to handling of refugees.
We also attempted to emulate the suspension mechanism of
Twitter by training a machine learning algorithm based on the
features used for discriminating among the different user cate-
gories. We discussed the effectiveness of our detection method
by comparing prediction results of the examined users with
the suspension and deletion of their accounts as observed in
the wild. We found that our features are meaningful enough
in studying abusive behaviors on Twitter, as well as detecting
users who are likely to be suspended from Twitter, or delete
their accounts by choice.
Finally, we examined users’ Twitter statuses on three differ-
ent time periods, i.e., November 2016, December 2017, and
September 2018. We found that in the earlier snapshots of the
users’ accounts, bullies were not suspended often, but instead,
took seemingly proactive measures and deleted their accounts,
whereas, aggressors were suspended more often than bullies or
normal users. However, when comparing the suspension rates
from November 2016 to December 2017, and then to Septem-
ber 2018, we observed a higher increase in the suspension rates
on Twitter in the last snapshot, for both aggressive and bully
users, but especially for the latter class. These results lend
credence to our annotation effort, since these accounts were
deemed aggressive or bully from our analysis, and approxi-
mately two years later Twitter suspended the majority of them
(only 5% of the bully users are still active). This outcome is
in line with Twitter’s recent efforts to combat harassment [56],
for instance, by preventing suspended users from creating new
accounts [72] or temporarily limiting users for abusive behav-
ior [88]. Such efforts constitute initial steps to deal with the on-
going war among the abusers, their victims, online bystanders,
and the hosting online platforms.
Future Directions. In future work, we plan to repeat our
analysis on other online social media platforms such as Face-
book, Foursquare, and YouTube, in order to understand if our
methods can detect similar behavioral patterns and can help
bootstrap their effort to combat them. Additionally, the pro-
posed detection method could be extended to consider not
only user-, text-, and network-related features, but also lin-
guistic attributes of the posted content such as extensive use
of idiomatic phrases, active or passive voice, and sarcasm or
irony. Such attributes could make the various behavioral pat-
terns more distinguishable. Finally, we plan to enhance our
techniques by providing real-time detection of abusive behav-
iors with the aid of properly tuned distributed stream and par-
allel processing engines. To this end, different modeling algo-
rithms and processing platforms could be used, e.g., batch plat-
forms like Hadoop vs. stream processing engines like Storm or
Flink, if data are processed in batches or in a streaming fash-
ion, respectively.
Acknowledgements. The research leading to these re-
sults has received funding from the European Union’s Marie
Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 691025 (project EN-
CASE). The paper reflects only the authors’ views and the
Agency and the Commission are not responsible for any use
that may be made of the information it contains.
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