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Dismantling Online Terror

Ariel Ben Solomon

Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Microsoft announce plans to create a common, shared database to root out extremists

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

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FROM SCREEN TO LIFE Some social media are creating a shared database to enable them to identify and remove extremist content (Photos: AFP/Imagebank)

W hy is Facebook allowed to broadcast hate?

That’s the question an Israeli advocacy organization is asking a US court, seeking to prevent the global social network from disseminating messages of terrorists and their allies. “Social media is like a golem that was useful at the beginning, but went out of control,” said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, president and founder of Shurat Ha-Din Israel Law Center, which sued Facebook on behalf of 20,000 Israelis in October 2015. “We are going to show that terror on social media is not just an Israeli problem.”

Shurat Ha-Din, which battles Israel haters in courts worldwide, filed a separate but related lawsuit against Facebook in June, seeking $1 billion on behalf of a group of Israel-US nationals who lost their lives in Palestinian terror attacks. Darshan-Leitner, an Orthodox Jew and mother of six, says social media sites don’t do nearly enough to stop the incitement scattered across their pages. Facebook filed a motion in a New York District Court last month to dismiss both cases. The next hearing is scheduled for January 19.

Darshan-Leitner says that Israeli officials have repeatedly pressed Facebook to address incitement, but Facebook refuses, citing the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which provides immunity for communications providers.

Some proponents of open platforms argue that removing terrorists from social networks would only force them underground, making it more difficult for security forces to monitor them. Many Palestinian terror groups are active on Facebook, while ISIS favors Twitter and YouTube.

In court, Shurat HaDin has argued that sponsors of the 1996 law could never have anticipated today’s social media environment. “Terrorists’ use of social networks has become like a regular weapon —like explosives — and should be terminated,” Darshan-Leitner says. Social media companies could easily stop such incitement through the use of algorithms and other monitoring tools. “The social media companies make the entire world very small by allowing those in Gaza to spread messages to kill Jews that otherwise couldn’t be done.”

Not only does Facebook allow extremist groups to operate on its networks, it also shows a bias when applying its anti-incitement standards — and Shurat HaDin says it can prove it.

Late last year, the organization tested Facebook’s enforcement policy by opening two identical pages — one calling for the death of Arabs and the other to Jews. The organization then reported both pages to Facebook at the same time. The result? Facebook immediately took down the page calling for the murder of Arabs, but left the page calling for the killing of Jews.

But an announcement last Tuesday could be a step in the right direction. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Microsoft announced plans to create a common, shared database to root out extremists. Reuters reports that the companies will share “hashes — unique digital fingerprints they automatically assign to videos or photos,” that will allow them to identify and remove extremist content.

“Facebook [and other social media] should not be allowed to aid and abet terror in the same way a bank is not allowed to operate in the interest of terror organizations,” Darshan-Leitner said.

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