Virtual character to protect kids
With studies showing sexting among young people in South Africa and around the world is at an all-time high, Unicef joined forces with Facebook and technology company Sherpas to develop an artificial environment to explain the shortcomings of sharing intimate pictures on the internet to young people.
Through an artificial intelligence platform, called Mask-A-Raid, South Africans from the age of 16 can interact through a messenger bot on Facebook with the fictional character Thembi Keshi, an active teenager on social networks. In the narrative, Thembi is recovering from a break-up when she discovers that her ex-boyfriend has leaked an intimate video of them. The narrative is constructed using text, photos, videos and audio messages, and for at least 48 hours a teen becomes Thembi’s best friend, exchanging experiences, advice and learning how to deal with situations such as the non-consensual sharing of intimate images.
In addition, participants are presented with effective ways to seek help when online violence occurs, such as helplines and the police.
Mask-A-Raid was launched in South Africa last week, on World Children’s Day, following a successful pilot project in Brazil. The project is part of Unicef’s global campaign to #ENDviolence in and around schools, including online bullying.
Rayana Rasool, communication for development specialist at Unicef South Africa, said: “The ultimate goal is to reduce young people’s exposure to online risks, such as revenge-porn, cyberbullying and grooming, and to provide resources for young people who may have encountered such a situation themselves or among their friends.”
She said the chatbot emulated human behaviour by contacting a user throughout the day, without previous user-interaction, and even several days after the first interaction.
“Through her own story, Thembi encourages a user to think about online behaviour and the consequences of sharing personal or intimate information and images. During the 48-hour window into Thembi’s world, young people are reminded what it would be like to have their own revealing images shared.” Ultimately, Rasool said, Thembi provided teenagers with support, explaining how teens could protect themselves.
Online revenge-pornography and other forms of online sexual exploitation have become more prevalent in South Africa, she said. “It can cause irreparable damage to a young person’s well-being and future. We want young people to understand why it’s important to really think before sharing an image with the world.”