Improving moderator responsiveness in online peer support through automated triage

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Journal of Medical Internet Research, 2019, 21 (4)
Issue Date:
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© 2019 Journal of Medical Internet Research. All rights reserved. Background: Online peer support forums require oversight to ensure they remain safe and therapeutic. As online communities grow, they place a greater burden on their human moderators, which increases the likelihood that people at risk may be overlooked. This study evaluated the potential for machine learning to assist online peer support by directing moderators' attention where it is most needed. Objective: This study aimed to evaluate the accuracy of an automated triage system and the extent to which it influences moderator behavior. Methods: A machine learning classifier was trained to prioritize forum messages as green, amber, red, or crisis depending on how urgently they require attention from a moderator. This was then launched as a set of widgets injected into a popular online peer support forum hosted by, an Australian Web-based youth mental health service that aims to intervene early in the onset of mental health problems in young people. The accuracy of the system was evaluated using a holdout test set of manually prioritized messages. The impact on moderator behavior was measured as response ratio and response latency, that is, the proportion of messages that receive at least one reply from a moderator and how long it took for these replies to be made. These measures were compared across 3 periods: before launch, after an informal launch, and after a formal launch accompanied by training. Results: The algorithm achieved 84% f-measure in identifying content that required a moderator response. Between prelaunch and post-training periods, response ratios increased by 0.9, 4.4, and 10.5 percentage points for messages labelled as crisis, red, and green, respectively, but decreased by 5.0 percentage points for amber messages. Logistic regression indicated that the triage system was a significant contributor to response ratios for green, amber, and red messages, but not for crisis messages. Response latency was significantly reduced (P<.001), between the same periods, by factors of 80%, 80%, 77%, and 12% for crisis, red, amber, and green messages, respectively. Regression analysis indicated that the triage system made a significant and unique contribution to reducing the time taken to respond to green, amber, and red messages, but not to crisis messages, after accounting for moderator and community activity. Conclusions: The triage system was generally accurate, and moderators were largely in agreement with how messages were prioritized. It had a modest effect on response ratios, primarily because moderators were already more likely to respond to high priority content before the introduction of triage. However, it significantly and substantially reduced the time taken for moderators to respond to prioritized content. Further evaluations are needed to assess the impact of mistakes made by the triage algorithm and how changes to moderator responsiveness impact the well-being of forum members.
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