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Policing themselves? Hate speech watchdog ADL enlists Facebook and others

The new Center for Technology and Society wants to place tech companies on the front lines in combating online hate speech. But can Silicon Valley police itself?

Reid Hoffman, co-founder and executive chairman of Linkedin, speaks with Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode, at the ADL's Never Is Now conference in San Francisco on Nov. 14, 2017. Photo courtesy of the ADL

SAN FRANCISCO (RNS) — Tech conferences happen almost daily in this elegant Baghdad by the Bay — as the city is also fondly known — and its sleeker, shinier Silicon Valley sister to the south.

But a conference held here this week veered from the usual “move fast and break things” motto of the tech industry to what might be called an effort to “slow down and fix things.”

That effort, an initiative called the Center for Technology and Society, will combine anti-bias activists and leaders from Facebook, Twitter and other heavy hitters of high-tech to fight hate speech online.

“Too often, when we try to be the best, the first, the fastest, we fail,” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, told a crowd of about 600 people attending its “Never Is Now” conference on Monday (Nov. 13). “When we race toward our future, sometimes we resign responsibility.”

“Fail” is a word many critics have aimed at tech giants when looking at their efforts to keep hate off their platforms. They say the social media companies do not do enough to ensure hatemongers such as Richard Spencer, the white nationalist who was repeatedly invoked at the daylong conference, and Andrew Anglin, an alt-right provocateur, don’t use the companies’ global reach to spread their white supremacist slurry.

Exhibit one — called out from both the conference’s main stage and its intimate breakout sessions — was that white supremacists used Facebook and other social media platforms to organize their “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August. The rally resulted in the killing of Heather D. Heyer, an anti-hate activist who was struck by a car driven by a neo-Nazi.

The Center for Technology and Society is an attempt to prevent such things in the future. Its creation was announced at 2016’s South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas, though it was officially launched this week in San Francisco.

The center will bring representatives from Facebook, Reddit, Snapchat and the Silicon Valley venture capitalists who nurture them together with scholars, journalists, activists and philanthropists to develop ways tech can police itself and counter hate.

“We are not just engaging the lawyers and policy experts, we are bringing in the engineers,” Brittan Heller, ADL’s director of the new center, said during a conference break. “I think what we are seeing now is that the companies understand that it is going to take a unified front across the industry if they are going to successfully stem the tide.”

Among its first projects is a study of anti-Semitic speech against journalists, which resulted in recommendations for tech companies in how to prevent that, and a “game jam” that enlisted video game enthusiasts in creating games with an anti-bias message.

Tech companies have recently stepped up their efforts against extremism. In June, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Microsoft formed the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, and individual companies have moved against hate. Facebook now has 150 employees dedicated to fighting terrorism, and GoDaddy banned The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi publication.

Some critics have applauded the effort. The European Commission commended Facebook for what it called “an important step in the right direction.

But most critics are more cautious, if not outright jaundiced, in their views. Among them is Kara Swisher, the executive editor of Recode, who interviewed LinkedIn co-founder and executive chairman Reid Hoffman at the conference on ways Silicon Valley can innovate against hate.

“I think, great, it’s a nice thing to do,” Swisher said of Hoffman’s proposal that companies not only block hate and fake news, but also offer “more positive” alternatives. “But let’s talk about solutions to just stop this speech. Where do companies take a stand on this thing? They seem to not want to.”

Some, including Swisher, have called out Silicon Valley for a “brogrammer” culture of gender discrimination and sexual harassment, as well as its libertarian approach to content and users. How, they ask, can such a dysfunctional industry be expected to police itself and others?

“America is slowly waking up both culturally and politically to the takeover of our economy by a few tech monopolies,” Jonathan Taplin, former director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab, wrote in The New York Times in August. “We know we are being driven by men like Peter Thiel and Jeff Bezos toward a future that will be better for them. We are not sure that it will be better for us.”

The ADL has long tried to enlist tech companies to its cause. ADL leaders say they helped GoDaddy, Google, Bumble, OkCupid and Reddit identify and excise white supremacist content, especially content that incited violence.

The timing of the center’s launch this week, its leadership says, could not be better. On Monday morning, just before the conference kicked off, the FBI released its annual report on hate crimes, showing an increase of 5 percent over 2015. It is the first time in more than a decade that crimes motivated by bias against race, religion, sexuality, national origin or disability have increased two years in a row.

The ADL’s own figures from the first nine months of this year show a 67 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents over 2016, a fact blazoned on pillars throughout the conference, which also had a high security presence.

In a session about rethinking tech’s role in fighting hate online, Carlos Monje, Twitter’s director of public policy and philanthropy, said the social media platform has removed 3 million terrorist accounts. But he had what might serve as a warning for all at the conference.

“You can delete a tweet but it is not going to delete the ideology behind it,” he said.