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Machine Learning Human Rights and Wrongs: How the Successes and Failures of Supervised Learning Algorithms Can Inform the Debate About Information Effects

Kevin T. Greene, Baekkwan Park and Michael Colaresi

Political Analysis, 2019, vol. 27, issue 2, 223-230

Abstract: There is an ongoing debate about whether human rights standards have changed over the last 30 years. The evidence for or against this shift relies upon indicators created by human coders reading the texts of human rights reports. To help resolve this debate, we suggest translating the question of changing standards into a supervised learning problem. From this perspective, the application of consistent standards over time implies a time-constant mapping from the textual features in reports to the human coded scores. Alternatively, if the meaning of abuses have evolved over time, then the same textual features will be labeled with different numerical scores at distinct times. Of course, while the mapping from natural language to numerical human rights score is a highly complicated function, we show that these two distinct data generation processes imply divergent overall patterns of accuracy when we train a wide variety of algorithms on older versus newer sets of observations to learn how to automatically label texts with scores. Our results are consistent with the expectation that standards of human rights have changed over time.

Date: 2019
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