Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter have all vowed to respond to online hate speech in less than twenty-four hours."as part of a joint commitment with the European Union to combat the use of social media by terrorists," Bloomberg reports today. Note that this specifically pertains to Europe, in wake of terrorist attacks. This also comes in light of the fact that the Union of French Jewish Students has repeatedly sued the tech giants including Twitter first over the hashtag #unbonjuif (#agoodJew) back in 2013, and again this year along with SOS Racisme and SOS homophobie. They analyzed 586 posts in a five week period and discovered "only 4% of those flagged posts were deleted from Twitter, 7% from YouTube, and 34% from Facebook."
To reiterate, this is a pledge pertaining to the EU, and specifically France who has different hate speech laws than, say America. Actually the countries all have varying degrees of this, some more Draconian than others. The problem with this tactic on the part of the Big Tech companies is that it is oh so flawed.
While there is no doubt terrorists are using social media for recruitment efforts if not through coordination efforts, I am highly skeptical that tech giants have any substantive measures in mind to thwart ay such efforts. And I say this because in my opinion, for two reasons.
1. They are too big to govern.
Like most entities that are bloated and monopolistic, Google and Facebook are simply too big. When it comes to taking down infringing music videos, Google has its hands full having taken down 180 million (!) videos in 2014 alone. I doubt this number is getting any smaller. By the way, this large number is also a great excuse Google can use-- the sheer volume of videos is hard to police. Perhaps this is why they're still hosting some jihadi videos on Youtube from 2013. They'll get around to it one of these days, right? The question is, how come these companies weren't proactive about hate speech from the start?
2. Their identitarian politics will most likely get in the way, of doing something significant.
Facebook first denied it, but the Guardian substantiated it. Facebook was indeed using real editors, not algorithms to select stories, which showed anti-conservative bias. It was so bad, Mark Zuckerberg had to take a minute from not paying taxes to set up a dog and pony show for Conservative hacks like Glenn Beck to placate them. If in the span of a couple weeks, Facebook went from Categorically Denying Bias Exists, to Doubling Down, to a giant Mea Culpa. Are we really sure they'll be good at differentiating hate speech from speech they don't agree with, especially when they won't admit their own bias?
Understand, Facebook is a private company and can do whatever the hell it wants. If it only wants to show us news about Hillary Clinton, dolphins or gyros, it's their prerogative. We don't pay for it unless you count giving up your data. Still it's not only smarmy of them to deny they are doing so, but hypocritical. Facebook has been actively wanting to show you what it believes you want to see, rather than allowing you to figure it out for yourself. This is also true of Twitter, by the way. It's social engineering under the masquerade of providing a better experience. I totally get that.
The problem can potentially occur though when the same tech giants who have already demonstrated a bias are now going to comply with a country's government and deciding which speech is hate speech. Scotland police currently have a list of 139 words you aren't allowed to say on Facebook. Among some obvious ones (racist, homophobic, etc) are ones that can be used in innocuous ways like "pig" and "cracker" and "knob." In other words they have taken the "we can't moderate everything so we'll just ban words outright," approach. What if Facebook makes that the norm throughout Europe?
As for Twitter, don't they already have a Trust and Safety council? I thought we had that sorted out by now.
Microsoft might seem like the outlier here, especially when you we know the NSA has access to both Hotmail and Skype, two Microsoft properties. I assumed they were already actively involved in monitoring speech.
I'm not saying this isn't well-intentioned move on the part of Big Tech. But I'm also not saying it doesn't feel like a PR play to look good in Europe. Right now Europe is scrutinizing how much (or little) American companies are paying in taxes over there. Especially Google. On May 18th French authorities raided Google's offices to uh, collect data on said tax scheme. I have to say for all the applause, this seems like an empty gesture at best, or the Orwellian shape of things to come in Europe at worst.