Internet giant Google is making strides to combat online anti-Semitism, but executives insist the most effective way to counter hate online is by activists creating an effective counter-narrative.
Speaking in Jerusalem at the 5th Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism, Juniper Downs, the Senior Policy Council for Google US, said her company has teams working "24 hours a day" to locate and remove hate content on platforms such as YouTube.
Offending items – including anti-Semitic propaganda – are regularly removed, and users responsible for "particularly egregious" posts are often banned altogether, she said.
The sophisticated systems Google employs include a "turbo-charge flagging" system, which allows developers to identify "trusted flaggers" – users with a good track record of flagging-up inappropriate material.
That system is a crucial tool in ensuring the system can't be abused, as users will often simply flag items they just don't like; for example, Downs noted that the most-flagged YouTube video is a fairly innocuous music video by pop singer Justin Bieber, whose off-stage antics have made him a deeply unpopular figure, despite the video itself being totally inoffensive.
Context is also key, she added.
In the past, some media watchdogs and anti-hate groups – including the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which monitors Arab and other Middle Eastern media – have found themselves subjected to temporary bans, after users flagged "hate speech" in videos which were in fact meant for the purpose of exposing incitement.
Downs said Google now ensures footage containing hate speech or other forms of anti-Semitism or racism aren't removed if they are included for "documentation or condemnation" of bigotry – an important distinction to avoid collateral damage against groups fighting to expose online hate.
But while Google is working hard to remove online incitement, Downs also emphasized that ultimately, simply removing the videos was just one part of the fight against anti-Semitism and hate-speech.
"We know that on our platform there are pieces of content which just go too far, and we take them down," she said. But more sophisticated anti-Semites have found ways of getting round the hate speech rules, by treading the grey line between racism and offensive – but permissible – material.
Moreover, removing hate-speech only deals with the tip of the iceberg, but doesn't address or combat the poisonous narratives which fuel the hate.
"We’re troubled by the hate speech we find on our platform, but we're even more troubled by the fact that it represents sentiments which still exist today," she said.
To tackle the problem at its root, users have to get more involved in actively countering the narratives of hate, Downs insisted.
"Counterspeech is the most effective strategy in doing the real hearts and minds work," she stated.
Paraphrasing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who spoke at the opening evening of the Forum on Tuesday night, Downs compared what she terms "counterspeech" to lighting candles in the dark. "It's not a matter of lighting a single candle – we need millions of candles" to dispel the darkness of racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry online.
Educational videos providing facts and dispelling the arguments of anti-Semites is one tactic often effectively used, but Downs noted that some of the most popular anti-hate videos were those using satire.
"Satire is a common and effective way of countering hateful views," she said.
To help mobilize users, Google has been conducting offline events, bringing successful YouTube video producers to coach activists on how to be most effective in getting their message across.
It hopes those events could ultimately empower users to do what the multinational technology behemoth can't – neutralizing the narratives of hate at their source and shutting down the demand for such material.
The Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism is held every other year, under the auspices of the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry for Diaspora Affairs. It allows experts on anti-Semitism from around the world meet and share ideas over three days.