Innovating to Fight Extremism and Hate

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Remarks by ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt to All-Party Parliamentary Group on Counter-Extremism - London, UK

March 07, 2017

Dear Friends,

I want to thank my friend MP Tom Tugendhat for the invitation to speak to this esteemed group.

I’m deeply honored to be here, and I am very much looking forward to identifying ways in which we can learn from one another and work together to fight the rising tide of extremism, which threatens the freedom and peace that are hallmarks of both British and American societies.

And of the global order which our two nations did so much to create in the wake of World War II, an order which has anchored global stability and fostered prosperity.

A quick bit of history before I delve into the particulars of why I am here, and why innovation is so critical in our collective fight against extremism: The Anti-Defamation league was founded in 1913 "to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment for all."

As America’s premier civil rights agency, ADL fights anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, defends democratic ideals and protects civil rights for all.

In the 1930s ADL was part of the fight against Nazism and Fascism in America, working with Federal Bureau of Investigation to penetrate and expose Nazi and fascist sympathizers.

In the 1950s and 1960s, ADL was solidly anti-communist and at the same time, committed to America’s free and open society against the excesses of McCarthyism.

In those decades we stood up for the rights of all Americans, and worked to advance the civil rights of African-Americans.  And ever since, we have continued the struggle on behalf of all, to be free from discrimination on the basis of religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin or gender identity. 

That’s our history. Today, we use our unrivaled resources in education, legislation and advocacy to advance our civil rights agenda. Today, we serve as a resource for government, media, law enforcement, educators and the public.

And every day, ADL is on the forefront of the fight against extremism in all its hateful forms. This dedication has not changed for more than 100 years – which, I know, in this country amounts to very recent history, but in the United States, a century of longevity is cause for celebration.

So that’s a snapshot of our past and our present. Our future will be dedicated to, and built on, these beliefs, these strengths, but our focus in the future must keep up with an unprecedented rate of rapid change.

One significant way the organization has signaled its vision for the future was in hiring me – an entrepreneur and social innovator – as its sixth CEO and National Director. 

While I admittedly represent something of a departure from previous leadership, I believe that my experience at the intersection of business, politics and technology has prepared me well to help guide the agency at this particular moment in history.

And that’s because the world is changing, and technology has become a crucial weapon in every extremist’s arsenal. Worldwide, extremists – from white supremacists to the so-called ‘alt-right’ to Islamic extremists – are using social media and other technologies to advance the spread of their hateful rhetoric and to target and recruit those susceptible to it.

In recent months, we’ve seen white supremacists hijack fax lines to send racist, anti-Semitic fliers to universities around the country.

We’ve witnessed a devastating cycle of cyber-harassment in the close-knit Jewish community of Whitefish, Montana.

On that note, I want to talk briefly now about the landscape of extremism – here and in the United States. You certainly don’t need me to tell you that extremism is on the rise. It is an ongoing, pervasive threat that both our nations face.

Just last week, British Jews were newly targeted in an ISIS video that urged supporters to “dress up like a Jew” and carry explosives into Jewish areas. The UK is reporting a surge in right-wing extremism, some of it violent, as in the tragic case of MP Jo Cox.

In the United States, we see multiple forms of extremism – from the extreme right to the radical left to the field of Islamic extremism.  Whatever the source, we are in the midst of a wave of anti-Semitism and have seen a rise of broader forms of bigotry -- the likes of which we have not seen on such a scale.

Since January, approximately 140 American Jewish institutions have received bomb threats – this includes 100 Jewish community centers, more than a dozen schools, as well as multiple ADL offices. Indeed, I can report here this evening that earlier today for ADL offices – Atlanta, Boston, Washington D.C. and our headquarters in Manhattan – were targeted with bomb threats.  We are working with the FBI and other federal and local authorities in support of their investigations to bring the culprits to justice and have great confidence that this will happen in the near future.

However, we worry that violence will not be far behind. Indeed, one of the institutions victimized was the Jewish community center in Overland Park, Kansas, where three people died in 2014 at the hands of a neo-Nazi gunman who shot people at point blank range in the parking lot.

Nationwide, neighborhoods and schools are reporting vandalism and personal threats against members of minority communities. Two weeks ago, a man shot three people in a bar in Kansas, as he yelled “get out of my country” -- in what is being investigated as a possible hate crime. Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an engineer from India, was buried just a few days ago.  Last Friday, a Punjabi Sikh man was shot in his driveway at his home outside Seattle by someone who yelled at him with the exact same words.

And these are not the only incidents. Over the past several weeks, Jewish as many of you may have heard, headstones were desecrated in historic cemeteries in Missouri, Pennsylvania, and New York.

And this affects other minority communities, too. Last week, the Islamic Society of New Tampa’s Daarus Salaam Mosque was targeted with arson, the second Florida mosque burned in the past six months.

We know what the threats look like. So what can we do to fight back?

It’s simple, and, of course, it’s complicated. But what is certain is we must innovate.

ADL has been working to counter the effects of technology and hate speech since 1985. And as pioneers and leaders in monitoring and disrupting cyber-hate, we are dedicated to countering these technology-enabled attacks with innovation of our own – and in partnership with the world’s most successful and cutting-edge companies, including Google, Facebook and Twitter. These collaborations are critical in an era when technology moves and changes at lightning speed.

These days, we see radicals from both sides of the political spectrum exploiting social media with great effectiveness. We often see content consumed via platforms like YouTube or others influence and inspire so-called “lone wolves,” individuals unaffiliated with organized groups. Whether such persons are influenced to adopt a radicalized, violent view of Islam or an extreme right wing ideology, the outcome is equally dangerous.

For example, after white supremacist Dylann Roof self-radicalized online, he went on a deadly shooting spree at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, murdering nine parishioners in cold blood.

So the Internet has enabled isolated extremists to become more active, allowing more of them to become involved in various virtual campaigns – weaponizing social media to harass their perceived enemies -- Jews, Muslims, women, people of color, or any other group.

I should note that extremists are a tiny minority of any population, but the internet expands their reach exponentially -- amplifying these isolated voices of hatred.

Technology makes it incredibly easy for a white supremacist sitting alone in a dark room to rally a “troll army” that will viciously harass anyone who offends his sensibilities.

It gives an ISIS recruiter the ability to identify and connect with potential terrorists, and incite violence in cities around the world. It gives foreign states the ability to foment instability and doubt.

We saw one particularly potent example of that potential in the case of Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan, a U.S. resident who authorities believe may have used extensive social media networks to inspire as many as 11 people living in the U.S. to undertake terrorist actions in 2013 and 2014.

He is believed to have held as many as 30 twitter accounts, all dedicated to spreading the doctrine of violent Islamic extremism.

Because this threat is global, countering cyber-hate must be a collective effort.

In 2012, together with industry leaders, ADL convened a working group of experts to evaluate current counter-programming and disruptive practices, and to develop new strategies for responding to online hate.

As mentioned earlier, I came to ADL in 2015 with extensive experience in the tech industry. I have raised capital, recruited teams, shipped product and sold ventures in the startup culture of California. So when I started as the new CEO at ADL in 2015, I saw the value in this working group and re-energized it. 

Today the cyberhate working group is a unique venue that includes Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Microsoft, and numerous others all of whom collaborate with ADL.  The group has met several times, and produced a handbook of best practices for responding to cyberhate including model terms of service that allow companies to adopt best practices around takedown procedures to deal with hate speech.

And our analysts at ADL’s Center on Extremism are working to fight hate on a daily basis—to track, expose and respond to hate on the internet, monitoring hate sites and extremist online activity. They regularly search the public and private web and have developed deep expertise in the subcultures that flourish online.

We are in constant contact and collaboration with technology companies and law enforcement agencies, serving as a critical and respected interlocutor that respects both the equities of free speech and user safety, thus we are credible to all sides, allowing us to help identify and shut down online purveyors of hate.

Indeed, we work closely with internet providers and websites to help them strengthen their anti-harassment policies, while respecting the need for free and open speech.

There is still much work to do, but our efforts to engage providers and platforms have proved successful. There are numerous examples where our interventions have yielded results.  Let me share some examples:

  • Recently, ADL worked with Facebook and Instagram to remove accounts associated with a Hezbollah spokesperson, and helped the encrypted messaging service telegram to remove ISIS propaganda.
  • Last summer we worked with apple and Google to pull down apps posted to iTunes and the Google play store that allowed white supremacists to track people they identified as Jewish on public websites.
  • At ADL’s insistence, Alibaba took a stand against selling Hitler-themed merchandise on their platform.
  • We led a campaign to pressure WordPress to remove ISIS videos. This was complicated because of its open source nature.

As successful as these efforts have been, we know that a piecemeal approach is not going to solve the systemic problem of online hate. We need to leverage the massive power of innovation and the resources of Silicon Valley to solve this problem together. We at ADL are dedicated to working with the tech industry find new ways to address and curtail the tide of harassment and dangerous speech.

Last fall, at our first-ever Never is Now! Summit on Anti-Semitism, ADL announced a partnership with Jigsaw, a Google subsidiary. ADL has joined with The New York Times and Wikipedia in collaboration with Jigsaw on Project Conversation, a new effort in artificial intelligence, or AI, that is designed to train algorithms to detect online hate and harassment before it happens.

This initiative is exciting, of course, but we know we’re not there yet. We know because we spend time online. And we know because people reach out to us, to let us know that their Facebook page is now littered with violent threats, or they were sent images of themselves photoshopped into a picture of a concentration camp gas chamber.

That’s what happened last year, when we saw mounting examples of anti-Semitic abuse on twitter specifically directed against Jewish journalists covering the 2016 presidential campaign. This prompted us at ADL to undertake a ground-breaking analysis of cyber-harassment on social media. We worked in concert with media experts and data scientists to pinpoint and expose some of the worst perpetrators of hateful, sometimes violent rhetoric against reporters.

We drilled down on 12 months of Twitter data and discovered more than 2.6 million anti-Semitic messages, tens of thousands of which were directed at a handful of Jewish journalists.  This was quite alarming because our follow-up research confirmed that a number of journalists were self-censoring in light of these attacks, carefully watching their words. These interviews confirmed that this issue was important, not only because of the intense anti-Semitism, but the impact on our free press, one of the pillars of our democracy.

What we learned unambiguously from this research was that white supremacists were clearly feeling empowered by rhetoric they were hearing – or thought they were hearing – from the candidate and his campaign.                                                                            

I am pleased to report that, in part as a result of our report, Twitter moved to strengthen its anti-harassment policies and practices. They introduced new strategies and innovated new algorithms to curb the abuse and protect their users from attacks.

And I also can share that we have launched a dialog with key lawmakers in the U.S. to consider what existing laws need to be updated or new laws created to deal with the challenge of online abuse and specific phenomena such as cyber-bullying, cyber-stalking, doxxing and swatting.

There is room for improvement, but our experience in the technology realm has taught us that many companies are responsive to personal accounts of harassment. With that in mind, ADL developed a Cyber-Safety Action Guide to provide users with an extensive list of technology companies, including Google, Facebook, Amazon and others and links to the companies’ hate speech policies as well as direct contact information for each organization.

We want to make it as easy as possible for everyone to report hate online – and this is a good first step.

Lastly, we understand that truly groundbreaking innovations need investment and incentives to get off the ground, and so in January we announced, in partnership with the Natan Fund, the “innovate against hate” competition.  The prize will be awarded to the most entrepreneurial individuals or nonprofit organizations that devise new approaches to uncovering and countering anti-Semitism and other forms of online hate speech.

Now there are new challenges as we continue to move into this brave new world.  I mentioned our foray into “AI” a few minutes ago, but it is an empty vessel that only will be good if we make it so.  Models like machine-learning and natural-language processing can have a positive impact but also can be manipulated for malevolent purposes, as we saw with Microsoft’s Taybot last year. After it was introduced on Twitter, racists quickly undermined it to attack Jews and other minorities.

We carefully are watching new technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality to see how they can be used for good -- such as training law enforcement officers on mitigating intrinsic bias -- but also to ensure that they are not exploited for malicious intent like reinforcing racist stereotypes.  And we are carefully tracking the ascendance and ubiquity of big data to ensure that data-enabled prejudices do not subtly penetrate more deeply into the information architecture of our society. 

In closing, I want to reiterate our most fundamental beliefs – which I know all of you share with us.

No matter what the threats look like, whether they are tweeted in cyberspace, scrawled on the hood of a car, or called into an elementary school, they are meant to intimidate and terrorize not only the individual, but an entire community. They are meant to silence and sow fear.

But ADL will not be silenced. I will not be intimidated. My staff will not be daunted.  We will fight back against extremism in all its forms, and we will work tirelessly to protect the rights and lives of our most vulnerable citizens, who may be singled out for how they look, who they love, where they’re from, or how they pray.

At ADL, we believe that we need to teach where we can, oppose where we must, and lock arms with others, in the pursuit of our mission.

Technology allows us to reach more constituents than ever, all over the world – and this is a gift we cannot overlook or take for granted. But extremists are innovating every day – we must do so as well, but better and faster.

The future belongs to all of us, and together, we can – we must – ensure that it is a future free of bigotry and hatred, a future full of promise -- and peace.

Again, thank you so much for inviting me here today.