Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Defanging Hate

Recently I was listening to a news story about how these psychopaths that shoot up schools are often motivated by various websites and social media groups. Evidently there are sites that go so far as to glorify past school shootings. My immediate thought was "why hasn't anyone taken these sites down?" I then realized this is just a technical problem. As someone who worked in technology for many years I've learned that technical problems are the easiest to solve. Consensus, resources, priorities, these are the hard problems. Technical problems can be solved.

The New York Times just posted this op-ed piece about how Facebook and Twitter are starting to get serious about eliminating hateful postings on their services. This article refers to the terrorists that have been murdering people in Jerusalem. It is critical that these top-tier social media sites accept their responsibility to curb posts designed to insight violence, but it is not enough. We must take it a lot farther.

First we must identify exactly who is the enemy here. Sites that openly, or covertly, promote violence certainly qualify, but many don't need to go that far. Sites that spread lies in order to arouse hatred also qualify. Many of these are racial, but some are just political, but if we adopt a "no tolerance for hate" attitude, then they all most go.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is one group that tracks hate groups. They publish a hate map that currently shows 784 hate groups operating in the United States. By now most of these will have websites, or participation in some online forum. We can shut these sites down, but that will just be a starting point. There are probably thousands of other forums online that spread lies and hatred designed to instigate violence. We can locate and take these down as well.

Think about how good Google is at finding stuff on the web. Imagine applying that awesome power to identify and locate hate speech on the web. It would not surprise me if Google already indexes these things. Then the work can begin.

I am not a hacker, but I have spent a good portion of my career defending websites, servers, and networks from hackers, so I have a pretty good idea of the kind of exploits that are out there. I know that if I don't take the proper precautions my website will be compromised in a matter of hours. And these are just random attacks. I believe there isn't a site or server out there that is safe from a dedicated, prolonged attack. At the very least a denial of service attack can be effective in preventing a site from functioning. This has all been done before.

There are of course the ethical implications of what I am proposing, not to mention legal. Certainly it is illegal to hack a website, destroy data, or launch denial of service attacks. There is also the free speech issue, something we are very devoted to in this country. But we're really talking about a war here. Our children are being gunned down at school. Racism, antisemitism, and violent ideologies are running rampant here and around the world. Terror groups use the web as a recruiting tool. I am advocating a NON VIOLENT method of confronting and defeating these groups. Our country has shown it has no problem tossing aside individual rights and moral issues when it comes to defeating an enemy. Free speech should not apply to hate speech, or incite to commit violence. Yes algorithms are not foolproof and there will undoubtably be the collateral damage of blocking legitimate free speech, but we're not talking about killing people here. We're talking about saving lives. We're talking about changing the course of history. Without a means to spread, this disease of hatred can fade away and die. The Internet has made it possible for psychopaths to get their message out far and wide. We can use this same power to shut them down and silence the hatred. It's just a technical problem.