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The Internet’s power to spread information quickly to a huge audience can be both a blessing and a curse.
Finding that the curse of unsupervised hate speech is rampant on the web and leads to terrorism, social media moguls Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube have joined in signing a “Code of Conduct”. The document, produced by the European Commission (EC), states that these mega companies will dedicate manpower and algorithms to remove “illegal hate speech” within 24 hours.
Though many are praising this move as a powerful first step towards decreasing world terrorism, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, counter terrorism expert, Israeli attorney and founder of Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center, questions how effective such an agreement will be.
Darshan-Leitner was among the first to lead the charge for increased online monitoring of terrorist activities. Shurat Hadin seeks to hold individuals and their regimes/leaders responsible by making them pay high sums in restitution and damages in order to bankrupt terrorism, noting that “Money is oxygen to terrorism.”
She is currently battling Facebook in a US class-action suit, alleging that the social media platform intentionally disregards widespread incitement and calls for murder of specific groups of people.
“In order to put a stop to incitement on social media, companies have to be vigilant about locating, monitoring and removing it immediately,” said Darshan-Leitner to Breaking Israel News. “We hope that signing this document is not just paying lip service to the European Commission but that companies will do something real to fight online provocation to murder.”
In fact, Israeli security forces refer to the rampant hate speech on Facebook as “The Facebook Intifada”. Explaining that terrorists regularly post details on how to murder Jews, Shurat HaDin notes, for example, that there are posts instructing how to cover a knife in bug spray before stabbing a Jew and the most effective way to stab someone for the greatest effect.
Under the Code of Conduct, “online intermediaries and social media platforms” must have in place “clear and effective processes to review notifications regarding illegal hate speech”, review “the majority” of notifications within 24 hours, and remove or disable access to any content determined to be illegal hate speech. The document defines hate speech as anything hateful directed against anyone over issues of race, color, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin.
For those concerned that free speech will be compromised by the new regulations, Vĕra Jourová, who led the creation of the code and is the EU commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality, placed the regulations within the context of the Paris and Brussels terror attacks. “The recent terror attacks have reminded us of the urgent need to address illegal online hate speech…This agreement is an important step forward to ensure that the internet remains a place of free and democratic expression, where European values and laws are respected.”
Karen White, Twitter’s head of public policy in Europe, stated, “We remain committed to letting the tweets flow. However, there is a clear distinction between freedom of expression and conduct that incites violence and hate.”
“Though freedom of expression is a democratic ideal, both morally and legally, it cannot be without limits,” Darshan-Leitner stated. “Yelling ‘fire’ in a movie theater is a prosecutable offense. You are free to say what you want until it leads to damages or, worse yet, murder.”
In 2015 alone, Twitter removed more than 125,000 accounts related to terrorism. From late March until mid-May 2016, in France, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were taken to court by civil rights organisations for failing to remove nearly 600 racist, homophobic and xenophobic posts. Research by Demos revealed that in just three weeks in April, 6,500 individuals were targeted by 10,000 aggressive and misogynistic tweets.
At the Jerusalem Post’s 5th Annual Conference held in New York on May 22, 2016, Israel’s Minister of Public Security, Minister of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy, Gilad Erdan lamented that social media companies are happy to use data they collect to make money, but they don’t make efforts stop terrorism.
Echoing these sentiments, Darshan-Leitner added, “Facebook has millions of algorithms in order to send users targeted ads to push consumer products. It is certainly able to know when someone is advocating terrorism and put a stop to it. Many of the Israeli stabbings were posted publicly hours before the attack with the hashtag “stab Jews”.
As noted in the UK’s Jewish Chronicle, European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor reacted to the Code of Conduct by stating, “This is a historic agreement that could not arrive at a better time. We have seen a massive growth of online hate speech and incitement in recent years and it is very important that governments, law enforcement agencies and online companies work in tandem to make the internet a safer space for all.”
Darshan-Leitner noted to Breaking Israel News, “When monitoring hate speech for potential terror incitement, you need to know the parameters and not allow personal bias or opinion to rule the day. It will cost money and take a good deal of work and time. But, it needs to be done.”