Hate on the Internet: A Call for Transparency and Leadership

  • November 7, 2011
Address by Abraham H. Foxman (as prepared)
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League
To the ADL Annual Meeting
New York, NY, November 3, 2011

The great American philosopher Yogi Berra once said: "Half the lies they tell about me aren't true." Of course, Yogi never imagined the existence of the Internet when he said that. He was in a position to try to correct the record, to exercise some control over what was being said about him. Today – for better or worse – such control is no longer possible.

I want to talk about the Internet today. I want to talk about the good, the bad, the exciting, and the dangerous. I want to share some thoughts with you about the Internet writ large, and also the Internet specifically as ADL experiences it. And I want to tell you what I believe we need and aren't getting from our friends at Google, at Facebook, at Twitter, at YouTube, at Yahoo, and at the other Internet companies who have reshaped our lives so dramatically.

It is very difficult to overstate how completely the Internet has transformed our lives. We write differently, we read differently, we work differently, we meet people differently, we engage each other differently, we even argue differently. Our children and grandchildren play games online, get report cards online, apply to college online, take courses online, make friends online, post details of their social lives online, plan weddings online, announce the arrival of babies online. We file legal papers and briefs online, we submit tax returns online. We read e-books and watch TV and movies online. What used to be private is public. The social habits, the cultural attitudes of our younger generations are totally foreign to their parents.

Of course, when it comes to researching questions online, as the saying goes "getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant." It is a magnificent tool – enormously powerful – and with that power comes an enormous challenge.

Let me talk about the power before I get to the challenge. It is important, of course, to recognize the Internet's incredible potential for good. Consider how the Internet as a tool has made the world better. Thanks to the Internet, individual citizens have new-found power to rise up as a force against tyranny. Medical professionals today can transmit resources on diseases and treatments from one side of the world to the other in the blink of an eye. The Internet has reunited families, and old friends, and provided a lifeline to those whose physical abilities are limited. And the volume of human knowledge now available at our fingertips is extraordinary. Extraordinary.

For ADL, we can now multiply many fold how many teachers and students we can reach with our resources on combating anti-Semitism and other forms of hate and bigotry. We can reach thousands of law enforcement officers with information about hate symbols and hate crimes. A powerful new megaphone is available to enhance our advocacy – not only on the fight against anti-Semitism and bigotry, but also on religious liberty, immigration, interfaith dialogue, educational equity, the safety and security of Israel, counterterrorism, and global anti-Semitism. Every day, we reach more people and more people find us – from across the country and around the world.

The Internet is also an invaluable research tool for us, particularly when it comes to monitoring, exposing and countering hate. Hate literature used to circulate underground, surreptitiously. Hate groups had secretive meetings, and tracking supporters of the most prominent neo-Nazis or white supremacists was almost impossible. We would subscribe to their publications, and report on their public rallies, but our level of knowledge was limited.

Today, thanks to the Internet, we know a lot more. Because these hate groups use the Internet, there is a far greater amount of information available about them – and because today we monitor their web sites and their posts on social networks, we know a lot more about the breadth and scope of the activities even of individual hate group members, and are in a much better position to analyze and report on the nature of the threat they pose.

But – there is always a "but" – the challenges are also significant. The Internet has enabled terrorists and haters to spread their message more broadly as well. They use it to recruit, they use it to plan rallies, gatherings and terrorist acts, they use it to launder money, and they are able to coordinate their activities in ways unimaginable even five years ago.

All Internet users, including children, can access hate music on iTunes, watch videos produced by anti-Semites on YouTube, stumble across Holocaust denial pages on Facebook, and end up in gaming environments where on-screen violence is coupled with the real-time bigotry brought about by instant communications with strangers. Add in the surge in cyber-bullying and the power of smartphones to access online content and the ubiquity of texting, and our kids are more vulnerable than ever before.

Rumors are another challenge on the Internet. Take a look at the "Internet rumors" page on our web site and you will see how many times ADL has felt the need to correct misinformation and disinformation. One reader passes it to another who passes it to another – and too many people believe it. There are no filters; there is no reference librarian. Anyone can publish, anyone can comment, anyone can criticize, a Holocaust denial site can look as authoritative as the Holocaust Museum's site. If half the lies told about Yogi Berra are true, once they are posted on the Internet, who will be able to tell which ones aren't?

We are dealing with a new kind of universe, and a double-edged sword. When the Prime Minister of Britain suggests preventing rioters from using Twitter and other social networking sites – the same social networking sites that facilitated the Arab spring – the conflicting impulses are readily apparent. Of course, many Europeans have long thought we Americans have a crazy approach when it comes to free speech and our First Amendment. At what point are people willing to sacrifice some freedom for greater security?

In the past, some have characterized the "www" as the "Wild Wild West." An apt description, but perhaps we should instead look at it as the purest marketplace of ideas the world has ever known.

ADL's mantra has always been that the best response to bad speech is more speech – good speech – and sunlight is the best disinfectant. Many years ago, as you know, we were a proponent of anti-masking laws, and those laws helped to expose and ultimately defeat the Ku Klux Klan. In that case, sunlight was effective.

Today, we have a paradigm shift, where Internet users can spew hatred while hiding behind a mask of anonymity.

The Internet provides a new kind a mask – a virtual mask, if you will – that not only enables bigots to vent their hatred anonymously, but also to create a new identity overnight. If an anonymous user espouses anti-Semitic or racist invective using a screen name, and an Internet service provider shuts them down by deactivating their account, there is nothing stopping them from creating a new screen name or moniker with a few short clicks of the mouse. Like a game of "whack-a-mole" it is difficult in the current online environment to expose or shame anonymous haters.

We have worked closely with some of the major Internet companies as they themselves wrestle with these issues. They have enormous problems of scale. Even if they were to agree with us on the dangers of material on their sites, the volume makes self-policing nearly impossible. The number of posts on Facebook each minute, the number of videos uploaded to YouTube, is staggering. Defining what is hateful, what violates their terms of service, is another huge challenge. Blood and gore is easy – so is child pornography – but what about pseudo-academic discourse on a subject we would consider anti-Semitic, like the deicide charge?

And, to add another layer of complexity, we are facing the internationalization of hate online, and our perspectives and the American First Amendment are obviously not universally shared.

There are some good examples out there of positive steps Internet companies have taken. If you search "Jew" on Google, one of the first websites that comes up on your screen is an anti-Semitic website called "Jew Watch." But working with us, Google agreed to post its own ad on that page of search results. The ad says, in part: "If you recently used Google to search for the word "Jew," you may have seen results that were very disturbing. We assure you that the views expressed by the sites in your results are not in any way endorsed by Google." A very rare step on Google's part.

Similarly, the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" – a virulently anti-Semitic book – is available on Amazon, but if you go to order it, on that page you will see a message from the Anti-Defamation League that describes it as a forgery, circulated by the Czarist secret police at the turn of the 20th century.

ADL has already done a lot of work in this arena. We routinely call on Internet providers to have clear rules – terms of service - prohibiting hateful or offensive content. We urge them to make it easy for users to report examples of such content, and we urge them to take action promptly when they learn of violations of their rules. And we published a tool kit providing guidance to the public on how to report online hate.

I am proud that we are a leader in the fight against online hate worldwide. Through our Center on Extremism and through the advocacy of our Cyber Safety Center, our voice is considered one of the most knowledgeable and sophisticated on this subject.

Under Chris Wolf's leadership, we stand at the nexus of an international response to online hate. We have brought together industry representatives and other stakeholders in Silicon Valley, we are the American representative on the International Network Against CyberHate, we have convened the South America-based Cyber Hate Alliance of the Americas, and we are a key partner in the Cyberhate-related work of the Interparliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism.

At the beginning of these remarks, I said I would tell you what I believe we need and aren't getting from major Internet companies. When it comes to dealing with hate, what we need are two things – transparency and leadership.

As I have said, much of the hate that's out there – on Google, on Facebook, on YouTube, on Twitter, on Yahoo, and on other mainstream sites – violates their terms of service. We know that the volume requires them to rely on users to complain, and then make their own determinations.

But what we often don't know is how these companies are deciding whether a particular message is offensive. They are not experts on anti-Semitism, or racism, or what constitutes other forms of bigotry. And yet, for companies that pride themselves on their community of users, they are remarkably and distressingly opaque when it comes to letting those users know why they are removing some messages but not others. What are their standards? What definitions do they apply? They need to be more forthcoming.

Transparency leads to reviewability, and consistency. Transparency stimulates discussion, and allows the marketplace of ideas to function effectively. Ultimately, greater transparency would be in the best interest of both the Internet companies and the communities of users on which they rely.

As for leadership, Internet companies need to take a more proactive stand against hate.

With 800 million users and still growing, Facebook is an example of a company that has experienced tremendous growth over the past few years, but at the same time continues to grapple with these issues, and not always evenly. In March, for example, we asked Facebook to remove a user page called "The Third Intifada," explaining that the term "Intifada" was itself a call to violence and terrorism against the Jewish state. Their initial response was no. The page did not violate their community standards and, they said, seemed to fall within their policies for acceptable speech. But they eventually changed their minds and removed the page after it became clear that the site was generating exactly the kind of hateful comments and calls to terrorism and bloodshed that we had anticipated.

Facebook also has yet to effectively deal with the problem of Holocaust denial on their pages. Currently, Facebook's policy is to not prohibit people from making statements about historical events – in their words "no matter how ignorant the statement, or how awful the event." But as we have said many times, Holocaust denial is more than historical revisionism – it is anti-Semitism. It is time for Facebook and other providers to recognize this and to take action to remove Holocaust denial content from their community, where hatred and anti-Semitism has no place.

Internet providers have a responsibility to use their own technology: First, to find hate, and second, to quantify how much hate is out there so we can measure progress over time. They should create industry standards. They should promote anti-hate messages. They should devote more resources to educating users. They should respond directly to complainants. They should work with the experts in hate, like ADL. And they should be more open to posting disclaimers, as Google did for "Jew Watch" and Amazon did for the "Protocols." In other words, they should find more ways to show they care, to be responsible corporate citizens.

As we continue to work closely with the Internet industry, I think they will get the message. They are well-intentioned, and I believe they are trying to confront some of the unintended consequences of what they have created.

Ultimately, as you have heard me say many times, I am an optimist at heart – and I think you all are too. If you didn't believe that what ADL does can change people's minds and hearts – and that once hate is exposed, the vast majority of people will reject it – we wouldn't be here. I hope that this shared determination to make a difference, to find the right balance for that double-edged sword, will animate our discussion about Internet anonymity this week.

Finally, we know the Internet is here to stay, so let us all try to use it creatively and effectively, and continue to work together to find ways to counteract the dark side. I urge you – when you go online – to exercise critical thinking, and to use good judgment. In that spirit, let me leave you with another pearl of wisdom from Yogi Berra: "you've got to be very careful if you don't know where you are going, because you might not get there."

Thank you.

ADL's mantra has always been that the best response to bad speech is more speech–good speech–and sunlight is the best disinfectant. Share via Twitter Share via Facebook