It’s a familiar pattern to anyone who’s spent any time on internet forums: a conversation quickly degenerates from a mild disagreement to nasty personal attacks.

To help catch such conversations before they get to that point, researchers at Cornell University, Alphabet think tank Jigsaw, and the Wikimedia Foundation have developed a digital framework for spotting when online conversations will “go awry” before they do so.

In a paper slated to be presented at the Association for Computational Linguistics conference in July, the researchers point out “linguistic cues” that predict when conversations on Wikipedia talk pages, where editors discuss the content of articles, will or won’t degenerate into personal attacks.

Two examples of initial exchanges from conversations concerning disagreements between editors working on the Wikipedia article about the Dyatlov Pass Incident. Only one of the conversations will eventually turn awry, with an interlocutor launching into a personal attack [Image: Zhang et al]

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the indicators of conversations that would stay civil include markers of basic politeness that any kindergarten teacher would approve: saying “thank you,” opening with polite greetings, and using language signaling a desire to work together. People in those conversations were also more likely to hedge their opinions, using phrases like “I think” that seem to indicate their thoughts aren’t necessarily the final word.

On the other hand, conversations that open with direct questions or start sentences with the word “you” are more likely to…