Can Silicon Valley help stem hate speech gone viral?

Yoking medieval barbarity to 21st-century technology, ISIS exploits Facebook and Twitter to broadcast propaganda, entice new recruits and exhibit beheadings and other atrocities.

In the fall of 2014 alone, Islamic State and its supporters maintained about 45,000 Twitter accounts, generating an estimated 200,000 tweets and retweets daily, according to a 2015 study by the Brookings Institution.

Anne Kornblut

The result is a headlong collision between the Western emphasis on free expression, and ethnic hatred and violent incitement gone viral.  With that in mind, Palo Alto’s Oshman Family JCC presented a panel titled “Technology in the Hands of Haters: Fueling Extremism in a Wired World.” The Jan. 12 event, sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, featured experts in law, policy and online communication.

Stanford visiting lecturer Janine Zacharia, who moderated the event, emphasized the “complexity” of the issue during a conversation examining what government agencies and private corporations can do to prevent incitement while preserving users’ privacy and freedom of speech. “In deciding we need to crack down on hate speech and terror recruitment online, there’s not an easy fix,” she said later.

“It’s a game of Whac-A-Mole,” said Beth Van Schaack, who served as senior adviser in the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice and is a visiting scholar at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. In the best-case scenario, “you can shut them down for a limited amount of time” before the same users, or others, create new accounts and gain more online followers.

Beth Van Schaack

Earlier this month, Obama administration representatives met with Silicon Valley companies to discuss the possibility of gaining “backdoor” access to users’ encrypted accounts as a means of identifying and shutting down terrorists. The companies’ officials  urged the White House to abandon the idea, which opens the door to “other risks,” said Zacharia.

During World War II, the Allies mounted a vigorous countermessaging campaign on radio stations broadcast into Nazi Germany, said Steven Luckert, senior program curator for the Holocaust museum. The key today is finding new ways to fight hate speech online, he added. In a time when extremists have a wealth of online tools at their disposal, traditional censorship isn’t the right weapon.

In addition, what one group sees as hate speech, another may view as legitimate protest. In the eyes of disaffected populations in the Muslim world, counterterrorist messages have “no credibility whatsoever coming from the U.S. government,”  said Van Schaack. Instead, the State Department needs to “empower the legitimate [dissenting] voices [within these societies] and give them access to these tools so they can compete.” She added that the United States can fund long-term solutions that include educating people vulnerable to terrorist recruitment, as well as supporting the education of women and girls as a means of lifting communities out of the poverty and isolation that often fuel extremism.

Anne Kornblut, Facebook’s director of strategic communications and a former editor at the Washington Post, agreed with this assessment, adding that competition among tech companies can generate technological solutions to the problem. She said Facebook, as a private company, has a system in place to remove calls for violent incitement. The company has trained staff around the world to identify and shut down accounts that “clearly call for terrorist recruitment and action” as a violation of its terms of service.

That said, no panelist brought up the October lawsuit brought by Shurat HaDin-Israel Law Center against Facebook, demanding that Palestinian incitement sites be taken down, and Facebook’s refusal to do so.

Panelists pointed to a possible hopeful sign in the new Global Engagement Center, set up by the State Department to support countermessages to the disinformation put out by such groups as ISIS and al-Qaida.

Steven Klappholz, director of the Holocaust museum’s Western regional office, said the Palo Alto event was the first of many that the museum hopes to organize in the Bay Area.