Event Reports

The EchoChamber

by Susi Doring Preston

A Conference on Hate Speech on the Internet

The magnitude of the Internet has given it an influence that has created both opportunities and challenges. Those challenges, such as the seemingly easy multiplication of hate speech that governments and civil society alike are finding difficult to harness. Decision makers are at a crossroads between Internet regulation and holding on the freedom of expression that is promoted in western societies. While the connection between online hate speech and offline actions are not yet fully understood, there is still a demand to provide more clarity on how they plan to tackle this challenge.
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In Collaboration with the Israel Foreign Ministry and the Simon Wisenthal Center, the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Israel hosted the conference The EchoChamber: A Conference on hate speech on the Internet. The goal of this conference was to serve as a platform for high-level discussions on hate speech and the internet amongst top decision-makers, experts and advisors from America, Israel and Europe.

Keynote: Finding the Strategy to Contain the EchoChamber, a German perspective

Special guest, Julia Klӧckner, deputy Chairwoman of the CDU and member of parliament, gave her keynote speech over finding the strategy to contain the EchoChamber, from a German perspective. Ms. Klӧckner elaborated on the digital revolution, specifically its negative side effects whose whole impact cannot be evaluated to date and the high speed with which it is taking place. Humanity, as she put it, is about to enter a new era which experts tend to call “disruptive.” She stressed the effect algorithms have on shaping democracy and the dangers they pose for politics particularly referring to last year’s presidential elections in the United States. How social bots, fake news and algorithms will influence future election results will depend upon who possesses the strongest big data strategy. Klӧckner also warned of the algorithmic construction of the Echo Chamber in the digital world and how it thins out diversity of opinions for the internet user thus, creating parallel universes where only encounters between like-minded individuals occur. Klӧckner also pointed out that changes in German political communication describing the trend of agitation in the political discussion that Klӧckner referred to the phenomenon of gradual desensitization which has been the nexus of discussion Germany. Countries such as Germany now are trying to solve the challenge of what to do next when traditional regulations are no longer applicable. Klӧckner explained that dealing with hate speech is an act of balance, because the freedom of opinion and press are important values that also must be upheld democracy and governments. Klӧckner described the need for social networks to view themselves as media enterprises; social media has enormous responsibility but the internet companies display a lack of willingness to take it. Still, criminal law has to be applied in the online world as well and basic laws need to be enforced also in the age of internet. Klӧckner made her point clear: Nobody, especially in Germany, should be fearful of violence in the public sphere and the same applies to the digital sphere. It is the task for society as a whole to stand against hate speech, online and off.

Finding the Strategy to contain the EchoChamber, an Israeli Perspective

Noam Katz, Deputy Director General, media and public Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, presented the measures undertaken by the Israeli government with regard to echo chambers and hate speech and what challenges still await tackling. He described the Echo Chamber as being created by two aspects, the social and algorithmic; to date, necessary structures to contain the echo chamber are absent as there is no legislation pertaining to the issue, there is even no social contract. Instead the digital war to date is controlled by e-commerce. Therefore, one of the measures need to be taken is the reassurance of authority of the state. The real stakeholders are civil society and the government which need to display a joint effort in tackling the issue. One of the key principles the internet is lacking today is transparency because of this, there is a need for better legislation to make e-commerce accountable. In order to counteract terrorism online there have been initiatives introduced by internet companies but real pressure can only be exerted by the public as well the government and legislative bodies. The Israeli government has furthermore initiated measures for strategic counter messaging in order to gain control over discussions like messaging in Arabic. Another area which needs to be monitored are algorithms. Echo chambers could be prevented if connectivity on social media is broken. In conclusion, Mr. Katz pointed out that in regard to algorithms, citizens have the right to know what technology does with them and stressed once more the need to create legal and social structures.

Presentation of the digital Terrorism and Hate Report by the Simon Wiesenthal Center

The associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Abraham Cooper and Richard Eaton, senior researcher at the Wiesenthal Center presented together the findings of the latest annual report on digital terrorism and hate. They began by giving an overview of what the different social media companies undertake in order to combat hate speech and prevent terrorists from obtaining accounts. The presentation included examples of graphic and video material glorifying terror posted on social media like Facebook that were reported by the Wiesenthal Center to the relevant authorities and the timeframe of their response to users. Instant messaging applications were highlighted as a cause for concern as one of the big challenges when fighting online terrorism is posed by the encryption of messages sent within such apps. Rabbi Cooper too expressed great concern regarding encrypted messaging apps, among them are Heywire, Telegramm and Snapchat. Eaton displayed how frightfully simple it turned out to get into contact with an ISIS fighter on Kik, another messaging app, just mere minutes after registering. Another front which is cause for concern is right wing extremism, like the nationalistic identitarian movement, and the white nationalist movement, conspiracy theorists and the alt-right movement. In their presentation, Eaton pointed at the impact these groups have had on the last US-elections. He also highlighted the alternative social media sites these movements use for communication and spread of content. A new site which is of concern is GAB which was founded in 2016, further sites are Voat, Disqus oder freeze peach, just to name a few. Baaz on the other hand is a social media platform which is used by ISIS. It was pointed out that another major concern is the facilitated access of youth to radical material and sites, highlighting the known success of the ISIS movement.

The Law of the Internet

Dan Shefet, a Paris-based attorney whose firm specializes in internet, intellectual and competition law, spoke among other things about the measures and recent initiatives undertaken by different law makers and governments against online terrorism, especially referring to a European initiative by French president Emanuel Macron, British prime minister Theresa May and German chancellor Angela Merkel. To date, Shefet explained, the internet is dominated by e-commerce, and hosts laws designed for communication and broadcasting corporations which do not apply to social media. The US Communications Decency Act of 1996 guarantees the corporations absolute immunity without distinguishing between ‘conventional’ media and Internet companies. Therefore, Shefet explained, the first item to address when tackling the issue of hate speech on the internet must be to revise the act. On the other hand, in the EU it was already decided in 2000, that hurtful content must be removed, guaranteeing rather relative immunity to the companies. Until today, no one but for a few exceptions has made attempts to revise the American Communications Decency Act as it is considered to be political suicide. Such legislations protect “human creativity” better than human integrity, because “the first translates better into economic profit”, as Shefet put it. Today, Shefet added, there is a consensus that there is a correlation between online content and offline behavior.

In his presentation, Shefet raised the question of how to make the private sector on the internet accountable and regulate content. First of all, the legal basis for tackling the issue has to be found. Unsuitable areas, as Shefet pointed out, are e.g. competition law or contraction law as social networks are not based on licenses. Instead, together with his own organization, the Association for Accountability and Internet Democracy (AAID), Shefet has recommended the creation of a national internet ombudsman that evaluates content on the internet and gives guidance to governments. This means that the government will again have the last say thus regaining the power monopoly of the state in the internet and its legitimation. Hate Speech on the internet could be tackled by creating a liability platform and installing an ombudsman complicit. Furthermore, an algorithms liability could be enforced- meaning that he who has developed the algorithm is to be held responsible and accountable. A Key issue pertaining algorithmic liability is encryption, as sites do not develop decryption keys or refuse to decipher data for criminal investigation “in the name of free speech.” Lastly, Shefet pointed at another related front posing a challenge; cryptocurrencies like bitcoins which are almost accepted worldwide with the exception of a few countries. To date, states have not yet taken measures to regulate them even though cryptocurrencies are a major method of financing terrorism due to their non-traceability.

Panel 1: the Building Blocks of the EchoChamber

The second part of the conference was opened by a panel moderated by Israeli online news site editor Guy Levy in which Dr. Leonard Novy, political scientist and director of the Institute for Media and Communications Policy and Raviv Tal, CEO of Vigo, a company that specializes in monitoring information from social media, participated. The first question addressed to Dr. Novy broached the issue of why social media turned into the main hub for hate speech today; Dr. Novy believes that many causes and factors come into play which needs to be considered. The psychological factors aside, he believes the main reasons to be the speed of the social changes technological change taking place. Raviv Tal stressed that the technology to tackle the issue of hate speech on the internet already exists but the question is where does the responsibility lie? Even today, internet companies are capable of writing such algorithms; and the bigger question is if these companies are willing to tackle the issue. He added that social media companies are already doing more in this regard than in the past but that they could actually be doing even more. One has to keep in mind that tackling hate speech on social media by the companies themselves is not always driven by good motivations. Novy added that in times of fake news and algorithms, education is paramount. There is also a need to educate people to distinguish between quality journalism and propaganda or fake news as well as to teach them what algorithms are. Novy added that People need to be aware that “reality is not neutral but a product of algorithmic rating.” Another question raised by Levy pertained to predictions of what social media will look like in 15-20 years from now. Dr. Novy replied that he is strongly in favor of treating Facebook and other social media in the future as media companies where journalistic standards would then have to be applied and editorial staff would have to be employed. By then, he believes, many traditional media companies will have shut down as they do not have a business model. Dr. Novy further believes that the aforementioned closing of media companies will cause another “informational” or digital divide and a debate on the future of public broadcasting, especially its funding. Raviv, focusing on technological aspects, believes that in connection to social media the public will become more powerful in the future. He furthermore thinks that technology will evolve faster than regulatory measures and strategies can be developed and applied. Dr. Novy pointed at the danger of ‘over reacting’, warning especially of measures which might be taken by governments in the future to substantially cut freedom of speech, a development which he called the creation of a ”ministry of truth.”

Questions by the audience included whether both experts believe a “human bias” regarding the deletion of hate posts exists and if so, how to tackle the issue. Dr. Novy remarked that he does see a “human bias” as to date it is people who decide upon deleting content on social media. He suggested that social media companies should invest more in educating their staff in how to decide what should be deleted. Regarding a question on prospects of incentives in order to make social media companies change their business model, Novy suggested to view social media companies as media companies. Dan Shevet added that he would recommend exerting legal pressure if toxic content is not deleted from websites. That the prospect of fines from lost lawsuits would be incentive enough for companies.

Panel 2: Battling the EchoChamber

In his presentation named “Between Imagined Reality and Real Terrorism” Daniel Cohen, researcher at ICRC and the Yuval Ne’eman Workshop for Science, Technology and Security at the Tel Aviv University, shared insights on his research on cyber strategies of Islamist terrorists and motives and methods behind other cyber terroristic activity. He first gave an explanation of what cyber terrorism constitutes describing three main targets organizations and institutions who pose online. Next, he explained the functioning of surfing incognito online through dark net usage (TOR) and discussed that the motives behind cyber terrorists and incitement from governments such as Russia are to disrupt and manipulate online content using a three step method:

1. The use of small outreach blogs to generate news sources.

2. Precise content from this smaller sources are reproduced on online news sites and accepted as legit journalistic content.

3. Content is spread by trolls or automatically while relying on social bots to manipulate the social media algorithms.

The reality of the situation are cases such as a cyber-unit of the Russian army intelligence which specializes on hacking into laptops and the same modus operandi with ISIS where it is motivated first and foremost to recruit new fighters via social media. Recently, Cohen explained ISIS has been seen to change its online strategy because it has become increasingly harder for ISIS campaigners to recruit on ”conventional” social media since its cyber-attack where the details of 1400 US military and government staff was released. Since then, the CIA was able to track ISIS’ online activities and understand ISIS’ cyber strategies. Because of this episode, ISIS has switched to use encrypted instant messaging apps like Kik, WhatsApp or Telegramm. Cohen pointed out that measures undertaken to combat cyber terrorism include an initiative o f five big internet companies, among them Facebook and Twitter, who have established a joint online data base. Additionally, Google has begun to apply strategic communication by showing e.g. anti-narrative videos if the user in question is searching for radical content. Challenging the spread of online hate speech, there are also governmental side efforts include strategic communication and the establishing of cyber warfare units to tackle this phenomenon.

Closing the conference, conference partner and expert, Yoav Adler, Director of Research and Development at the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, gave a presentation on algorithmic solutions to the diplomatic challenges in Israel, specifically the ones the public diplomacy department of the foreign ministry has encountered. The challenges of public diplomacy on the web, as Adler pointed out, come from the reality that there is a small pro-Israel community in relation to the anti-Israel movements. The Israeli government has therefore developed methods to crack open anti-Israeli echo chambers in order to expose a more pro-Israeli narrative. The algorithmic solution consists accordingly of an “algorithmic boost”. This means that there is developed technology that will support pro-Israel content of social media users to achieve a larger outreach on the website. In addition, there has also been technology developed to block anti-Israel content by creating a “bubble effect” which prevents the user’s entire environment from viewing the negative content. Adler illustrated the success of these measures in the Arab world and also mentioning that the Arabic language Facebook page of the Foreign Ministry has more than one million followers.

Hosting over 100 participants, the conference welcomed government and political representatives, technology and legal experts, as well as the press and professionals from local and international NGOs. Speakers from the conference, including resident representative from the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Dr. Michael Borchard, called for a united front against Hate Speech on the Internet and challenged leaders to form a coalition on handling this phenomenon.

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