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How to fight extremism online, the right way

Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt says tech companies are out of excuses for not being part of the solution.

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Tensions High As Alt-Right Activist Richard Spencer Visits U. Florida Campus Brian Blanco / Getty Images

The internet is a powerful breeding ground for white supremacy, antisemitism and other forms of extremism — and the Silicon Valley companies with the most power are out of excuses to not be part of the solution, Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt says.

“There a libertarian ethos there, where it’s like, ‘Anything goes, and it’ll be good, just keep the government away, and we’ll innovate our way to utopia,’” Greenblatt said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher. “We both know human nature doesn’t exactly work that way. We shouldn’t be surprised that extremists exploit new media. The Nazis did it, with ‘Triumph of the Will.’ The Soviets did it, with Pravda. We shouldn’t be surprised that extremists today try to terrorize and spread their own form of tyranny through new media.”

Part of the solution, Greenblatt explained, will be expecting leaders in politics and business to not equivocate on the harmful speech happening under their watch.

“First and foremost, leaders lead,” he said. “And what gets said at the top trickles down. Being ambiguous about calling out what seems to me pretty unambiguous — that creates the conditions in which extremism can feel emboldened.”

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But actually changing the internet and society at large for the better will take more than just good leadership. Greenblatt said the ADL is now working directly with engineers at tech companies like Twitter to solve problems with code rather than lawsuits. He said abuse can happen at such a great scale that the focus should be on how artificial intelligence can automatically sanitize platforms of extremism, rather than relying on humans to filter it all out.

“There is no way on God’s green earth, no matter how many customer service reps Mark Zuckerberg hires, he could ever keep up with the torrent of information,” Greenblatt said, citing the billions of messages sent over Facebook’s platforms every day.

As the Jewish CEO of a nonprofit founded in 1913 to fight antisemitism and other social ills, Greenblatt said his own Twitter mentions could definitely benefit from some smart AI filtering.

“If I’m walking into Best Buy on a Sunday afternoon and I get tweeted a picture of an oven, that might be okay, because maybe there’s a sale on Whirlpool ovens in aisle 12,” he said. “But if I’m sitting here in your studio and I get tweeted a picture of two ovens and it says ‘Jewish Bunk Beds’ on it, that’s probably not such a nice thing to send to me.”

“If you used AI and saw, aha, the person tweeting, its name is ‘white genocide,’ you see their Twitter bio says, ‘I want to kill all the Jews,’ you see they’ve been flagged for messages before, you see that they have none of the friends in common with me,” he added. “There are lots of triggers that, using AI, we could effectively — in nanoseconds, milliseconds, monitor these kinds of things. You could instantly, if not solve the problem, you could mitigate it dramatically.”

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