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US spies search for a sarcasm detector. Really


Sean O'Grady
Friday 06 June 2014 14:21 BST

So the American secret service is looking for a way to detect sarcasm on Twitter. Of course they are.

Keen to develop a way of automating its social media monitoring service, the spy agency has put out a tender to find a company able to develop a program allowing its computers to filter sarcastic threats from serious ones, as well as conducting “sentiment analysis”.

Ed Donovan, a spokesperson for the Secret Service, apparently claimed, without a trace of irony: “The ability to detect sarcasm and false positives is just one of 16 or 18 things we are looking at.”

Yeah, right. Not. There is nothing easier to spot with a bit of clever programming and some smart algorithms. Language experts may suggest they pick up on the idea – entirely serious and po-faced after all – put forward by the mischievous journalist Bernard Levin some years ago, when he suggested there should be a special typeface for these circumstances, named “ironic”, just so that people such as Americans could detect the presence of irony where no other indications are present.

It would be quite simple to introduce this on a global scale, across every language, and culture, and have Twitter, Google and others in the more traditional media agree to it.

Maybe it isn’t even necessary, as satire is so easy to see: after all, centuries ago, Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick – advocating the consumption of babies – was instantly recognised as the early spoof it was.

Well, let’s not be sarky or falsely positive here. Let’s be positively positive. Western spying agencies have always been paragons of efficiency, and purveyors of intelligence. They have never been outfoxed by a bunch of drunken British gentlemen spies such as the Cambridge ring, and their failure to assassinate Fidel Castro using an exploding cigar should not mean they are held up to ridicule as the bunglers they are sometimes made out to be. Our spies are so much better than that. So that’s all good, then.

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