To the Extreme: What Tech Must Do to Stop Hate

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt spoke about the need to harness the transformative power of tech when it comes to fighting hate online. Watch the video of his talk at Fortune Brainstorm Tech.

July 15, 2019

To the Extreme: What Tech Must Do to Stop Hate

Fortune Brainstorm TECH

"We see, that this hate, when it happens online and it’s permitted, it soon becomes permissible offline and is almost normalized. And we see it spreading today.

High school students slinging “heil Hitler” salutes at their Jewish classmates. Desks and lockers vandalized with swastikas. Cemeteries desecrated. Synagogues vandalized. Black churches burned to the ground. Mosques defaced in the ugliest of ways.

So unfortunately, these aren’t, what I’m sharing today, sort of random data points on a scatter plot. No, these are actually data points on a trend line. And we see it from Norway to Poway –white supremacy is a growing global epidemic, and social media is allowing it to spread, and sustaining this scourge."

 

Transcript:

There was a time when I was frequently on stages like this, because I, like many of you in this audience, was an entrepreneur.

I’ve been involved in a number of startups, numerous rounds of financing, some successful exits -- and my own share of failures.

But today I’m not here as an entrepreneur, I’m here as an activist, as an advocate, and as the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League or ADL, an organization founded more than 100 years ago at a time when Jews in this country didn’t enjoy the privileges that we have today. We couldn’t necessarily buy a home or get a job, enroll in college anywhere that we like.

So a group of Jews got together with the inspired idea of creating an organization that would focus on fighting anti-Semitism. But that’s not all. They wrote a founding charter for this organization, and in it are the words that we still use today as our mission statement. They wrote that the purpose of this organization would be to “stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.”

That’s right. To all.

Because they realized that in this country, we’re all in it together, and the best way to defend the Jewish people in America is to defend all people. And that’s exactly what they did.

They marched for civil rights… they lobbied for hate crimes laws… they advocated for immigrants … they fought neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and anyone who threatened the Jewish community and other marginalized communities.

And that fight still continues today.

But you see the battleground has changed. We’re not just confronting people marching down Main Street anymore. Now, it’s shifted, and that struggle is taking place right here, right now.

It’s the MacBook Pro in your briefcase.

Or on the tablet in your office.

Or on your child’s cell phone in her bedroom.

You see, social media has allowed some of the worst elements of society into our homes and our lives. It’s created an open door to the kinds of people you would never allow anywhere near your loved ones in real life.

Now, it’s fair to say social media has also done tremendous good. It’s connected us across cultures and divides. But the fact of the matter is, it is also an organizer, a magnifier, a catalyst for the some of the worst types of hate in our society: anti-Semitism, racism, and homophobia, and the list goes on.

So to put this in context let me share a story, if you will, about a middle-aged truck driver living in a suburb, who mainly kept to himself. His neighbors reported he rarely ever talked to them or said hello.

But in the ‘90s, he became enthralled with talk radio, and in particular a host who used to rant about the fact that Islam was the source of all of our problems, that the United Nations is an expensive farce. And so he listened, alone.  

But then with the advent of the internet and social media, he found his way onto Facebook. And then he discovered platforms like Gab and 4chan– where he found other people who shared his poisonous ideas, and who actually egged him on down the rabbit hole of radicalization.

Soon he was posting comments like “Jews are the children of Satan,” or “Diversity means chasing down the last white man.”

And he would say these things, but he didn’t need to wear a white hood or find a rally in the back woods. No, online he found rallies taking place 24/7 where his worst impulses were validated.

And then one morning he reached a breaking point. He took out his phone and he went to Gab, and he wrote: “I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in.” And that’s exactly what he did.

He drove to Pittsburgh, he found the Tree of Life synagogue. He burst in, and he shot 11 people in cold blood. Worshippers who were there on a Saturday morning, elderly people who were simply too frail to flee. He murdered them as they cowered in the pews.

This man committed the most violent anti-Semitic act in American history.

Now, you may say, there will always be crazy people… people who blame Jews or blacks or gays, for their problems. But no, let me tell you, there’s something different going on today.

People can now say the most heinous things – and hide behind screens while they do it. Social media allows them to connect with other elements on the opposite side of the earth. It shelters the sociopaths and it literally encourages the kind of intolerance we would never tolerate in the real world. It’s incredibly problematic.

At the ADL we’ve studied this issue. We found that a third of users report that they have experienced, in the last year alone severe online hate and harassment

Nearly half of all daily users of Twitch have experienced harassment, and about third of daily users of Facebook and Twitter report the same. So the fact of the matter is, there is a big problem.

We see, that this hate, when it happens online and it’s permitted, it soon becomes permissible offline and is almost normalized. And we see it spreading today.

High school students slinging “heil Hitler” salutes at their Jewish classmates. Desks and lockers vandalized with swastikas. Cemeteries desecrated. Synagogues vandalized. Black churches burned to the ground. Mosques defaced in the ugliest of ways.  

So unfortunately, these aren’t random data points on a scatter plot. No, these are actually data points on a trend line. And we see it from Norway to Poway –white supremacy is a growing global epidemic, and social media is allowing it to spread, and sustaining this scourge.

Now, I frequently talk to and work with the executives from social media companies. They’re good people, and they’ve taken some important measures, like ejecting some of the worst offenders from their platforms.  

But the fact of the matter is, I think the reason they haven’t done more is because they don’t necessarily see it as part of their responsibility. Far too often they don’t seem to get it. Typically, these steps are reactive not proactive, more about PR and damage control rather than meaningful change. They simply don’t believe that they have a responsibility to shut this hate down.

They wrap themselves in the cloak of free speech. They invoke high principle.

And, the problem is, that, as we saw even here in Aspen just a few weeks ago, the founder of Facebook was asked about this very issue, about a fraudulent and malicious video that was posted to their platform only with the intent of undermining the Speaker of the House, he refused to offer the kind of answer that responsible people would expect.

It’s ugly and it’s got to change.

Now, when I say it’s got to change, we know tech can take steps right now to stop hate. There are things they could do instantly, if they would just acknowledge, they’re not elected governments. They aren’t even running public places. These are businesses, plain and simple.

Like the Shake Shack across the street from my office in New York City. If you walk up to the counter and shout “die, dirty Jew,” they will throw you out.

If you go upstairs to the registration desk at the St. Regis, and you yell at the people of color, that they should go back to the countries where they came from, they will throw you out.

And it is long overdue for Google and Facebook and Twitter to take the people spewing anti-Semitism and racism and hate, and throw them out.  

But if they won’t do that instantly, there are simple measures they could undertake. I’ll offer you five steps

Number one, reset the algorithms. If they’re not willing to eliminate this content altogether, they should at least make this filth hard to find.

Number two, slow it down. There is no natural law that dictates that once you post a video it needs to show up instantaneously across the internet. Give it a minute. Let the AI do its job. And if you find a problem, put it in the bullpen so humans can actually look at it.

Number three, end hate-for-profit. It’s inexcusable that some of the most toxic content on these platforms is monetized today.

Number four eliminate bots entirely. They don’t contribute at all to the public conversation. Or at least label them so we know what we’re looking at.

And finally, the company should acknowledge their own accountability, and they can do that by submitting to regular, external, and independent audits, so we know that they are living within the means they set for themselves.

Now, I would suggest that none of these ideas are crazy. In fact, I think they’re pretty reasonable.

But if the companies won’t act, I think we’re reaching the moment when government will. And if government doesn’t do so, and by the way, maybe it should, the marketplace can also respond.

We as consumers have a power, to use our collective ability. Imagine if one day, instead of logging into our accounts to demonstrate our dissatisfaction, and push the companies to get the prejudice off of their platforms, we simply didn’t sign in?

A digital walkout could compel the companies to realize that they need to take action now to act before a short-term protest becomes a long-term movement, or even worse, a new business model entirely

Now, I’ve managed teams of engineers. I know code is complicated. And they will tell you that this issue is hard.

But, you know, the engineers I’ve managed, they want to solve the hardest problems. They run toward complex challenges. That’s exactly what they’re looking for.

And frankly, since when is Silicon Valley daunted by the impossible? From Hewlett to Packard to Jobs and Gates – they have reinvented entire industries, rewired our collective consciousness, and reshaped human civilization in the process.

By comparison, bouncing some bigots off the platform, it’s just not that hard.

And I say this as someone who believes in tech, who’s seen it’s transformative power.

But if the companies want all of us to be connected for good, then it’s time that they start fighting hate for good, and they need to do it now. Thank you.