The Fight against online hate

The Australian Jewish News (Sydney Edition) reports on the completion of the first stage of CIE’s new project to combat online hate. The first stage, funded by B’nei B’rith Australia and New Zealand, involved the design of a solution for emprically monitoring online hate, particularly in social media. The solution was presented at an experts meeting of the Online Antisemitism Working Group of the Global Forum to Combat Antisemitism which took place in Israeli Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem in early July 2011. Following this meeting it was presented at B’nei B’rith events in Sydney and Melbourne. A report containing detailed information on the project was also created.

Source: Chantal Abitbol, The Fight against online hate, Australian Jewish News, 22 July 2011

Plans for Australian-designed software, which seeks to identify and disect online antisemitism, have been unveiled.

The system called Fight Against Hate is the brainchild of social media expert Andre Oboler, and forms one component of the Community Internet Engagement (CIE) project launched in Melbourne in January.

According to Oboler, its aim is to produce empirical data about the colume of online hate, focusing specifically on social-media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube.

Its features include allowing the public to report content to a third party, separating data from questionable content, and producing trend reports on processed data. Over the past few weeks, Oboler has criss-crossed the globe to present the first-stage design of the softwarer — first at the Global Forum to Combat Antisemitism in Israel and last weekend at B’nei B’rith events in Sydney and Melbourne.

“The response has been very positive,” Oboler told The AJN this week.

“The consensus is that this is something new and very much needed. And from the experts dealing with online hate, the view is that this is a tool that would allow them to do [much] deeper analysis, which they can’t really do at the moment. So far all we have is samples, not empirical data.

“The aim is to try and clean up social media,” Oboler said. “If we do that, we can start changing social values so that hate is again seen as not acceptable in society.”

Now all that is needed is the fundign to build it.

Oboler is trying to raise $230,000 to get it off the ground, with another $200,000 a year to cover operating costs. This is in addition to the CIE core operating budget.

“As soon as we have the funding we can start,” he said.

“What we hope is that the major donors in the Australian Jewish community are willing to step forward collectively so this solution can remain a primarily Australian initiative, covering not only antisemitism, but online hate in general. As a multicultural and innovative society, we believe it fitting that Australia is seen to take the lead in this arena.”

CIE NOTE: The CIE project has actually been operating since September 2009, not January (as indicated in this article), and its core funding is generously provided by the Pratt Foundation. The B’nei B’rith contribution provided additional capital to employ the additional staff needed for Fight Against Hate project.

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Jerusalem Report features CIE’s work combating online antisemitism

Lawrence Rifkin, The (Sometimes) Antisocial Network, Jerusalem Report, May 9 2011

Israel and Jewish organizations are scrambling to exploit the good side of Internet 2.0, but also to minimize its potential for spreading anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments.

NOT LONG AGO, IF THE conversation veered toward anti-Semitism on the Internet, it would focus on what seemed like an endless number of dedicated hate sites. These sites were so ubiquitous that Google, which relies on complex computer codes called algorithms to find entries that are relevant to what’s typed in its search window, would trumpet the hate site Jew Watch at the very top of its results for the word “Jew.”

The barrage of complaints that rolled in apparently made Google rethink at least some of its algorithms – so that typing the word “Jew” now brings in, high on the list of results, the following disclaimer: “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.

…Sometimes subtleties of language cause anomalies to appear that cannot be predicted.

A search for ‘Jew’ brings up one such unexpected result.”

While there is far more than just one “unexpected result” (dedicated hate sites have probably multiplied since the Google/Jew uproar was first heard), some of the hatred has been migrating to a still evolving phenomenon called Internet 2.0. A sobriquet conjured up to imply a completely new Internet – which, in a way, it is – Internet 2.0 is unlike traditional websites designed for passive use. Internet 2.0 is built around what’s called “interoperability.”

This is hi-tech-speak for user interaction, and its denizens include social networking sites like the immensely popular Facebook and video-sharing sites such as Google’s YouTube, where, according to publicists, the servers upload 35 hours worth of footage from users every minute.

INTERNET 2.0 BRINGS PEOPLE together and further democratizes an already democratic medium. It allows anyone with a computer browser and modem – and no web publishing knowledge at all – to post text, photos, audio recordings and videos on the World Wide Web, usually for free.

That’s clearly a significant upside, and to revert to an old catchphrase, it can be very good for the Jews.

On Facebook alone, one can find any number of pages devoted to things Jewish and Israeli, ranging from organizations such as Chabad, USY and Peace Now to ad hoc groups calling themselves “I Stand with Israel Today” and “I’m Not Yelling… I’m Jewish… That’s How We Talk.” And as for YouTube, who among us in the lead-up to Passover did not receive at least one e-card or e-mail linked to an impressive holiday video presentation or a hilarious rendition of an old classic somehow reworked into a modern-day iteration of Moses and the 10 plagues? Israeli officials responsible for hasbara – a Hebrew term that refers to explaining Israel’s official policies and points of view – have zeroed in on Internet 2.0. The army has its own YouTube “channel” (www.youtube.com/ user/idfnadesk) with how-to videos for soonto- be inductees – along with spy drone footage of rocket-launching crews at work in Gaza.

And Benjamin Netanyahu got in on the act in late March when he was interviewed in a live television broadcast that, because it simultaneously appeared on YouTube, allowed questions to be put verbally to the prime minister in real time from around the world.

The official Internet 2.0 face of Israel is the Foreign Ministry’s Information and Internet Department.

“Over two years ago, we noticed that more and more people are getting their information from social media and not just from websites,” department head Chaim Shacham tells The Jerusalem Report. “We don’t really have a strong sense of where the best hasbara should be, so we decided to go where most of the people are.”

The department has its own Facebook page (www.facebook.com/israelmfa), You Tube channel (www.youtube.com/israel) and Twitter account (www.twitter.com/israel), and uses them for what might be termed “proactive hasbara.”

“We view our business as branding Israel, not defending it,” Shacham says. “More and more people can identify with Israel if they can identify with the content. People using the new media usually want a burst of information and then to be drawn in. We use Internet 2.0 as a net, and then try to guide them to Internet 1.0 for a reservoir of content.”

On Facebook, the netting process begins when a client looks up a friend. The friend’s page reflects things he or she does and likes. If the friend has seen the Foreign Ministry’s Facebook page and recommends it to others, the friend will note this with the nowomnipresent “Like.” And because so much of Facebook relies on links – perhaps the World Wide Web’s most unique tool – if the friend hasn’t posted a “Like” for the ministry’s page, there’s a chance the client will link to the page of a mutual friend who has.

Once you reach the Foreign Ministry’s Facebook page you’ll see Shacham’s “burst of information,” links that take you to his “Internet 1.0,” the ministry’s dedicated website (www.mfa/gov.il). That site is jam-packed with just about everything you might want to know about Israel – or, to be more blunt, just about everything Israel would want you to know. It is, after all, about branding.

“Yes, we want people to know about issues,” he tells The Report. “But we want them to learn about them while learning about Israel with its rich history, about the innovative Israel with hi-tech success and business opportunities, and about the Israel experience, with its tourism, arts and multiculturalism.”

Of course, as with any website, the address of one’s Facebook, YouTube and Twitter page is important: the simpler and more direct, the easier it is to remember. The Foreign Ministry’s YouTube and Twitter pages once had the “MFA” suffix that its Facebook page still has, but just plain “Israel” has been the goal.

“YouTube was withholding the name and we had to go through a lengthy process to prove we were the official representative of the Israeli government,” Shacham explains. “With Twitter it was a little different. It turns out that a pornographer in Florida whose first name is Israel owned the name. We ended up paying him $5,000 for the rights.”

SO MUCH FOR THE UP – or lighter – side of Internet 2.0. Its biggest downside, on the other hand, is the ease of accessibility for purveyors of hatred and hostility. And with regard to Israel, these are not limited just to anti-Semites or Israel-bashers.

They prominently included Jews and Israelis who vent their wrath on Arabs and on each other.

The recent brouhaha over a Facebook advocacy page in Arabic titled The Third Intifada serves as an illustration. On the surface, The Third Intifada exhorted followers from the West Bank and other Arab countries to stage something of a “million-man march” right up to the border with Israel on May 15, the Gregorian date of Israel’s independence and a day the Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, or the catastrophe. However, according to critics, the page had an undertone that could be construed as incitement to hatred and even violence against both Israelis and Jews, while user comments often were much less subtle.

Jewish watchdog groups, such as the Anti- Defamation League, appealed to Facebook, which in late March, after a bit of foot dragging, removed the page. Nonetheless, it has since reappeared in several forms, in turn spawning Facebook pages such as “Against the Third Palestinian Intifada” and “Crush the Third Intifada Page.”

“New ways of using the web, such as social networking sites like Facebook and user-generated content sites such as YouTube, have led to an explosion of online bullying,” says Deborah Lauter, ADL’s director for civil rights. “Social networking sites are also used to promulgate hate and extremist content, increasing the depth and breadth of hate material that is available and which confronts nonextremist users,” she tells The Report.

Lauter says her organization works directly with “service providers such as Facebook” to confront the problem.

“Our discussions are fruitful and ongoing,” she says. “It is critical to note that the amount of material – Facebook has hundreds of millions of pages, YouTube has hours of videos uploaded every second, and Twitter has 140 million tweets per day – makes it virtually impossible for pre-posting policing of material.”

Replying to a Jerusalem Report query on the Intifada page matter, Facebook spokesman Simon Axten e-mailed the following – apparently boilerplate – response: “[W]e don’t typically take down content that speaks out against countries, religions, political entities, or ideas.

However, we monitor Pages that are reported to us, and when they degrade to direct calls for violence or expressions of hate, we have and will continue to remove them.”

The spokesman referred to the specific issue as follows: “The Third Palestinian Intifada Page, while using a term that has been associated with violence in the past [referring to the term Intifada - ed], began as a call for peaceful protest. In addition, the administrators initially removed comments that promoted violence. However, once the Page gathered publicity, comments deteriorated to direct calls for violence, and eventually, the Page administrators themselves also participated in these calls. After sending several warnings to the administrators about posts that violated our policies, we removed the Page.”

ENTER ANDRE OBOLER, A SOCIAL media expert who directs the Community Internet Engagement Project at the Zionist Federation of Australia and co-chairs the working group on online anti-Semitism for the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism. Oboler holds a PhD in computer science and in 2007-2008 was a post-doctoral fellow in political science at Israel’s Bar- Ilan University.

Taking his cue from the moniker given the new interactive Internet when it began gathering speed several years ago, Oboler coined the term “anti-Semitism 2.0.”

“The difference from classic anti-Semitism,” he tells The Report, “is that it tries to put on a socially acceptable face. Success here lowers social resistance to bigotry.”

By way of example, Oboler says he is bothered less by Stormfront, an openly anti- Semitic website run by white supremacists, than he is with the ostensibly benign Facebook, which can give similar material a veneer of respectability.

“I’m not so concerned about the spread of hate among people who hate us already,” he says. “I’m far more concerned about the spread of hate material to our friends and to those we’d want to be our friends in the future.”

Beyond the veneer, he says, the issue is also in the presentation.

“Anti-Semitism 2.0 mixes 50 percent racism and 50 percent claims of why it’s not racism. It compares Israel to Nazis, but goes on to say ‘we’re not racists,’ and then offers what it calls citations, but which are not really citations,” Oboler explains.

He claims that this modus operandi is particularly striking on Wikipedia. “You see a lot of things that are referenced to faulty, misused and fictitious citations. It is an attempt to portray hatred as an academic argument, all wrapped up in a legitimate website rather than an overtly hateful site.”

An overtly hateful website, he goes on, is much easier to have removed or filtered by search engines. “But you’re not going to pull down Facebook because of the anti-Semitism it contains. So the question is, what sort of ethical stand are Facebook and YouTube, for example, going to take on enforcement against hate messages?” Facebook’s Axten offers a short and, again, stock explanation of policy.

“Facebook is highly self-regulating,” his statement reads. “We provide report links on nearly every page and encourage people to let us know when they see something they think might violate our standards. Our team of investigators reviews and takes action on reported content according to our policies.”

Paul Solomon, spokesman for YouTube in Israel, is equally succinct. “Essentially, the community is the first line of defense. We review all flagged videos quickly, and if we find that they do violate the Guidelines, we remove them.”

Yet he provides a bit of depth by explaining just how the company’s review system works: “There are three components,” Solomon wrote in response to a request from The Report.

“1) The community flags the video. Despite the rumor that flagging campaigns will remove a video, a single flag is sufficient to trigger this system. 2) Our algorithms prioritize the video in the queue. The algorithms examine things like flesh tones (for sexual content), the history of previous flags (i.e., has it been flagged and approved before?), and a few other demographic factors. 3) Our reviewers perform a manual review using our review tool.”

In reconsidering a video, YouTube looks at both content and intent.

“Consider, for example, the video of the death of [post-election demonstrator] Neda Soltan in Iran,” Solomon continues. “We have policies that prohibit shocking or graphic content.

On the face of it, a video showing a young woman bleeding to death would likely be removed if it were flagged. But we make exceptions for videos that have educational, documentary, scientific or artistic (EDSA) value, provided that it is balanced with the additional context.”

More recently, the Israel-based Palestinian Media Watch (PMW), which, according to its website, looks for mass incitement and demonization against Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, had a run-in with YouTube, where it maintained its own channel. Apparently, an organized flagging campaign was mounted against PMW, and YouTube, most likely having taken only a superficial look without considering the context, eventually removed enough PMW videos to justify shutting down the entire channel – which, after a short appeal process, was reopened.

The same happened to a photo presentation uploaded by Jewish settlers after the government, in a highly controversial move, released graphic and gruesome photos of the bodies of five members of the Fogel family, including a three-month-old baby, who were butchered in their West Bank settlement in March. The move, Israeli officials openly said, was intended to show the true brutality of Arab terrorism, but YouTube looked at the content and said no – although it later relented.

Facebook and YouTube seem to have divergent approaches, Oboler tells The Report.

“With YouTube it’s ‘If in doubt, remove.’With Facebook it’s, ‘If in doubt, don’t remove.’” In a report published earlier this year, Oboler illustrates that flags and even written complaints might not always be enough, even with YouTube, where a group calling itself “theytnazism” presented a “list of people we hate and we want to kill… 1. Blacks, 2. Jews, 3. Indians.”

“I reported this to YouTube in February [2010],” Oboler writes, “and on November 22 – 10 months later – [the group’s YouTube page] was still active…. I then included [a screenshot of the page] in a set of slides for a conference on anti-Semitism run by the World Zionist Organization in France… and suddenly the group was gone.”

He believes this was not coincidental, as other groups he had complained to YouTube about, but never mentioned publicly, remained online.

“It’s all good and well to tell the public to report things,” Oboler tells The Report.

“Having people flag things is far more effective than any algorithms. But what happens afterward? The problem is how you decide when you’ve crossed the bridge. The driving force that pushes these companies to do anything is public pressure. It becomes a threat in a corporate sense.”

In a forthcoming report titled “A legal model for government intervention to combat online hate,” Oboler, as part of his work with the Zionist Federation of Australia, calls on that country to broaden existing anti-hate laws to more effectively combat the growing phenomenon on the Internet.

“Governments have a responsibility to take an active role in the online world; if they don’t they cannot meet their wider obligations to the people they serve,” he writes. “The powers, rights and limitations that apply to governments and private citizens in the real world need to be reflected online.”

He also aims his words at “[t]hose advising clients in the technology sector,” warning them that they “should be aware of the potential for increased government intervention.”

Oboler tells The Report that “the use of new media technology can bring governments and communities together. It’s just a channel that can be used for good and for ill, and we have to maximize its use for good.”

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Wikipedia Manipulation: Anti-Israel Activists using Criticism Elimination

A new paper by Andre Oboler (CIE’s Director), along with Prof Gerald Steinberg (head of NGO Monitor) and Rephael Stern has been published by the Journal of Information Technology and Politics. The full length academic article, “The Framing of Political NGOs in Wikipedia through Criticism Elimination”, introduces the concept of criticism elimination, a type of information removal that has been used by anti-Israel activists to control the message and frame issues in Wikipedia articles.

Criticism elimination facilitates a new form of gatekeeping, and the article demonstrates how this was systematically done to remove criticism of NGOs actions in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The article also categorizes the editors responsible for the behavior into four types. Mitigation approaches to criticism elimination are also suggested.

Background

  • Wikipedia’s approach has, however, raised concerns (Lichtenstein, 2008) that are traditionally reserved for the mass media. For instance, the media has long acted as a gatekeeper, selecting and framing issues in what was perceived to be the public interest (Williams & Delli Carpini, 2004). The management of public discourse through framing raises significant political implications…
  • The presence of politically motivated framing (rather than the expected NPOV), as well as gatekeepers, sanctioned or de facto, has serious implications for the understanding of content production in Wikipedia.
  • The problem in subjective areas is that Wikipedia articles can be dominated. Sunstein (2006) notes that the last editor “can appoint himself as sovereign” (p. 158) destroying, rather than aggregating, content. Stacy Schiff (2006), writing in The New Yorker, noted that more frequent editors generally get their way. Articles or entire topic areas can be framed with a particular view by users with knowledge, determination, and power within the system.
  • By dominating articles and topic areas, Wikipedia can be used as a platform for political propaganda. Paul Murphy (2008) called Wikipedia “an early and illustrative warning of the collapse from informed social networking to propaganda.” He explained that “sub-groups of the general community … are now using Wikipedia as a marketing tool for their viewpoints.” He called it “fundamentally inappropriate in a site nominally dedicated to the provision of objective information.” He raises a concern that those with an agenda will be more dedicated to getting their point across than casual users, thereby allowing them to dominate.
  • Framing can occur though gatekeeping (Lewin, 1947), a theory of how items are “selected” or “rejected.” … [it] is “the process by which selections are made in media work, especially decisions whether or not to admit a particular news story to pass through the ‘gates’ of a news medium” (McQuail, 1994, p. 213). Social responsibility theory (Peterson, 1956) saw the public as passive and easily manipulated and the media as “information gatekeepers who represented the public’s interest” (Williams & Delli Carpini, 2004, p. 63).
  • Wikipedia’s dominance raises concerns about its own effect, or that of dominant editors, in framing information and acting as gatekeepers….  In Wikipedia, a culture (Schiff, 2006) with power structures, guidelines, and policies has developed to prevent this. These policies include NPOV, which states that articles should be “written from a neutral point of view, representing significant views fairly, proportionately, and without bias” (Wikipedia, 2008c)… In practice, however, the top 1 percent of posters jointly contribute about half of Wikipedia’s edits (Wilson, 2008). The power of the elite gives them a default gatekeeping role. Their strength in authority, time commitment, and knowledge of Wikipedia can easily overwhelm, and thus eliminate, the contributions of others.

The experiment

We use an in vivo experiment in the form of an observational study with predefined variables and multiple “sites” (articles in this case), making this a field study as per Basili’s (1996) classification scheme for experimentation in software engineering. As Wikipedia records all interactions within the system, we use content analysis on stored data as a form of observation.

Metrics:

  • 16 NGO articles were used in this study, all edits to these articles were reviewed
  • 627 edits relating to criticism were extracted
  • Of the 16 NGO articles, nine were included in WikiProject Palestine (and their criticism sections were heavily revised to eliminate criticis

Methodology:

We reviewed how the edits changed the nature of the article, and specifically whether they removed relevant sourced information. We reviewed the over all impact on the article, and the over all editing behavior of the editors found doing such criticism elimination. We did this both for numeric results and for a more in-depth qualitative review.

Summary of Results

Four of the NGO entries examined (including the UK-based charity Christian Aid and the Israeli NGO Hamoked) had sourced criticism sections completely or almost entirely deleted. In both cases, all discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was removed (twice in the case of Christian Aid).

In total, 89 editors removed criticism, and 61 of these used registered user names. There are four prominent users removing criticism from multiple NGOs; 16 users removing criticism multiple times from one or more NGOs, in addition to making revisions in other NGO entries; and 26 users with low-edit counts focused on NGOs.

Qualitative analysis revealed 4 types of users who removed criticism:

A campaigner is a Wikipedia editor working towards a larger goal. He or she edits across a range of NGO articles and other articles. In the NGO articles examined here, campaigners usually removed sourced criticism. Some campaigners are members of WikiProject Palestine. Others appear to edit articles in the project without being members.

An advocate editor is concerned almost entirely with one page or a very limited topic. In the case of our research, the focus would be a particular NGO. One hypothesis is that advocates may be members, supporters, or staff of the NGO. These editors are using Wikipedia for a purpose unrelated to the advancement of the encyclopedia, and instead they remove criticism in order to frame their targets in the best possible light.

The lobbyists are editors who work within a broad scope of articles across Wikipedia, yet focus on only one NGO. They differ from advocates, because they contribute in other places, and from campaigners, because their actions do not appear to be part of a general campaign. These editors may attempt to remove or reduce criticism or set very high standards for the inclusions of criticism. As they become more involved in Wikipedia, their use of Wikipedia’s internal policies and guidelines to achieve their goals becomes more sophisticated.

Casual editors are visitors to Wikipedia who only edit articles on occasion. Spread across many topics, their edits show no unified agenda. Their attention is divided and, very often, thinly spread. These users may remove information that conflicts with their conceptual model on the justification that it is out of place.

Examples of each type of editor and the changes they made can be seen in the full paper.

The paper may be cited as: Andre Oboler, Gerald Steinberg and Rephael Stern, “The Framing of Political NGOs in Wikipedia through Criticism Elimination”, Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Volume 7, Issue 4 October 2010 , pages 284 – 299.

The published, Routledge (Taylor and Francis), have made the article a sample for the Journal. As a result the article is online and may be downloaded or read online for free.

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Government a welcome presence in cyber regulation

The following article by Andre Oboler was published in the Australian Jewish News on May 7 2010, page 23. It is a reprint of a piece in Jerusalem Post.

Merely allowing debate on the internet is not enough to prevent cyber-racism. Governments need to step in to regulate the proliferation of hateful messages on social media sites.

The US Congress and the Italian parliament deserve credit; last week both held hearings into combatting on-line anti-Semitism. The differing testimony, however, highlights the gap between the US and the rest of the world. As one of the experts to appear before the Italian parliament, I had the opportunity to focus on the heart of the problem and to explore the ineffectiveness of the approach advocated to Congress just days earlier.

The hearing in Rome examined both Italian-language Web sites that distributed anti-Semitic literature and imagery, and the international problem in social media. The Web 2.0 examples I presented came from Facebook, YouTube, Google Groups, MySpace and Flickr. They included conspiracy theories, Holocaust denial, blood libel, demonization and other classic and modern forms of anti-Semitism – all easily found across the spectrum of social media sites.

The heart of the problem is that such material is largely accepted as legitimate expression. Why should something condemned by society were it published in print or placed on posters on city streets suddenly become legitimate simply because it appears on-line?

Social media sites are incredibly powerful. YouTube, for example, has a user base 50 times larger than the combined circulation of the top 10 newspapers in America. Can such a powerful medium really exist free of governmental control? With the power these companies wield, is no obligation owed to society?

Anti-Semitism 2.0 is the spread of the social acceptability of anti-Semitism through Web 2.0 technology. It creates an environment in which to be racist is no worse than to support the wrong soccer team. In such an environment, hate spreads, and society is conditioned to accept it. The danger is not just for the Jewish community, but reflects a wider breakdown in society’s values. If on-line society continues to develop in a moral vacuum, the lack of respect for human dignity may soon be reflected back in the “real” world.

THE US Congress focused on violence motivated by hate. In Italy we focused on the promotion of hate itself. Incitement to hate is a danger to public order, whether or not violence follows. Freedom of expression comes with responsibility – a point clearly made in the UN Charter on Civil and Political Rights. While Congress heard, once again, the tired argument of counterspeech as the best response, the Italian parliament discussed in technical detail the limits of counterspeech on platforms like Facebook.

On Facebook, having one group denying the Holocaust and another remembering the Holocaust would not be counterspeech, but rather two unrelated dialogues. To try to engage in debate in the Holocaust denial group is to promote it to all your contacts, not to mention entering a space controlled by the deniers where counterarguments can be deleted and those attempting counterspeech banished. It’s like responding to an anti-Semitic newspaper by sending it letters to the editor.

What’s worse, the curious might then view Holocaust denial or anti-Semitic propaganda, some of it direct from the Nazis, as something “contentious” and “debatable” rather than as a known and dangerous falsehood that has led to the death of millions.

There is no reason for platforms like Facebook and YouTube to facilitate the spread of hate. There is no reason on-line communities should be free of social values and human rights. The challenge is to create a civil society on-line. Such a society is not made through groups promoting NGOs, but through the adoption of ethical behavior by platform providers, on-line community leaders and the public.

Counterspeech certainly has its place, but it cannot be relied upon as a silver bullet. The correct place for counterspeech is with friends, where hate can be exposed and explained while we wait for the platform to remove it.

THE FIGHT for civil rights has been a long one. We should not have to start from scratch simply because of a change in technology and the emergence of social media companies with more reach than any newspaper. At minimum, companies that allow anyone to publish should allow anyone to complain. At minimum, such complaints should be reviewed in a reasonable time, and if they are dismissed as groundless those who file them should be given the option of recourse through the courts if the content is illegal.

In Europe, and indeed almost everywhere beside the US, hate speech against minorities is already illegal. If companies get it wrong, if they insist on harboring hate either by rejecting valid complaints or through excessively slow response rates, it should be governments who hold them to account.

We have tackled copyright as a result of the music industry; we have tackled privacy largely as a result of government officials in Canada and Italy; next we must tackle the promotion of racism and hate. It is up to governments and intergovernmental organizations to make this a priority for social media companies. Yes, there will be costs, but it is no more than the cost of doing business in what remains a very lucrative market.

Andre Oboler is director of the Community Internet Engagement PRoject at the Zionist Federation of Australia, and co-chair of the working group on online anti-Semitism for the Global Forum to Combat Anti-Semitism.

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New media needs a new approach to antisemitism

Originally published as: Andre Oboler, New media needs a new approach to anti-Semitism, Jerusalem Post, 27 April, 2010

Why should something condemned by society, were it published in print, suddenly become legitimate simply because it appears on-line?

The US Congress and the Italian parliament deserve credit; last week both held hearings into combatting on-line anti-Semitism. The differing testimony, however, highlights the gap between the US and the rest of the world. As one of the experts to appear before the Italian parliament, I had the opportunity to focus on the heart of the problem and to explore the ineffectiveness of the approach advocated to Congress just days earlier.

The hearing in Rome examined both Italian-language Web sites that distributed anti-Semitic literature and imagery, and the international problem in social media. The Web 2.0 examples I presented came from Facebook, YouTube, Google Groups, MySpace and Flickr. They included conspiracy theories, Holocaust denial, blood libel, demonization and other classic and modern forms of anti-Semitism – all easily found across the spectrum of social media sites.

The heart of the problem is that such material is largely accepted as legitimate expression. Why should something condemned by society were it published in print or placed on posters on city streets suddenly become legitimate simply because it appears on-line?

Social media sites are incredibly powerful. YouTube, for example, has a user base 50 times larger than the combined circulation of the top 10 newspapers in America. Can such a powerful medium really exist free of governmental control? With the power these companies wield, is no obligation owed to society?

Anti-Semitism 2.0 is the spread of the social acceptability of anti-Semitism through Web 2.0 technology. It creates an environment in which to be racist is no worse than to support the wrong soccer team. In such an environment, hate spreads, and society is conditioned to accept it. The danger is not just for the Jewish community, but reflects a wider breakdown in society’s values. If on-line society continues to develop in a moral vacuum, the lack of respect for human dignity may soon be reflected back in the “real” world.

THE US Congress focused on violence motivated by hate. In Italy we focused on the promotion of hate itself. Incitement to hate is a danger to public order, whether or not violence follows. Freedom of expression comes with responsibility – a point clearly made in the UN Charter on Civil and Political Rights. While Congress heard, once again, the tired argument of counterspeech as the best response, the Italian parliament discussed in technical detail the limits of counterspeech on platforms like Facebook.

On Facebook, having one group denying the Holocaust and another remembering the Holocaust would not be counterspeech, but rather two unrelated dialogues. To try to engage in debate in the Holocaust denial group is to promote it to all your contacts, not to mention entering a space controlled by the deniers where counterarguments can be deleted and those attempting counterspeech banished. It’s like responding to an anti-Semitic newspaper by sending it letters to the editor.

What’s worse, the curious might then view Holocaust denial or anti-Semitic propaganda, some of it direct from the Nazis, as something “contentious” and “debatable” rather than as a known and dangerous falsehood that has led to the death of millions.

There is no reason for platforms like Facebook and YouTube to facilitate the spread of hate. There is no reason on-line communities should be free of social values and human rights. The challenge is to create a civil society on-line. Such a society is not made through groups promoting NGOs, but through the adoption of ethical behavior by platform providers, on-line community leaders and the public.

Counterspeech certainly has its place, but it cannot be relied upon as a silver bullet. The correct place for counterspeech is with friends, where hate can be exposed and explained while we wait for the platform to remove it.

THE FIGHT for civil rights has been a long one. We should not have to start from scratch simply because of a change in technology and the emergence of social media companies with more reach than any newspaper. At minimum, companies that allow anyone to publish should allow anyone to complain. At minimum, such complaints should be reviewed in a reasonable time, and if they are dismissed as groundless those who file them should be given the option of recourse through the courts if the content is illegal.

In Europe, and indeed almost everywhere beside the US, hate speech against minorities is already illegal. If companies get it wrong, if they insist on harboring hate either by rejecting valid complaints or through excessively slow response rates, it should be governments who hold them to account.

We have tackled copyright as a result of the music industry; we have tackled privacy largely as a result of government officials in Canada and Italy; next we must tackle the promotion of racism and hate.

It is up to governments and intergovernmental organizations to make this a priority for social media companies. Yes, there will be costs, but it is no more than the cost of doing business in what remains a very lucrative market.

The writer is director of the Community Internet Engagement Project at the Zionist Federation of Australia, and cochairman of the working group on on-line anti-Semitism for the Global Forum to Combat Anti-Semitism.

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Pesach Seders on Twitter

CIE’s Director, Dr Andre Oboler, appeared in the Passover issues of the New York Jewish Week.  The article in question examined the phenomena of twitter seders and asked whether this use of social media was a positive development. The article, Let My People … Tweet, is by Sharon Udasin and available on the Jewish Week website.

The full quotation provided by Dr Oboler was as follows:

Passover, in my experience, is the biggest gathering of those closest to us short of a major simcha. Leaving to one side the differences between Orthodox, Conservative and Liberal Judaism, the question you are really asking is what does technology enables and at what price? Twitter, and to some extent Facebook, provide a yearlong ongoing chatter of minor news from friends to vague acquaintances. This is a surface level connection, wide and shallow. This can be a distraction and become the focus of our communication rather than time face to face with those we are closest to. Pesach, one of the three pilgrimage festivals, the shalosh regalim, is a time for gathering together. It is, perhaps, a time to disconnect from the world and focus on those closest to us and on a distant past well before the advent of the mobile phone and the computer. This night at least should be different from all other nights. It may take a special effort, but there is indeed something deeper and of great value if we want to take the opportunity. Experiencing the past as if we were there might just require us to switch off in order to be switched on.

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