Google’s Eric Schmidt calls for a “spell-check for hate” to battle ISIS

Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, has called on technology companies to build tools capable of disrupting hate speech and terrorist communications – suggesting “spell-checkers, but for hate and harassment”.

Google’s Eric Schmidt calls for a “spell-check for hate” to battle ISIS

“We should build tools to help de-escalate tensions on social media – sort of like spell-checkers, but for hate and harassment,” he wrote in an editorial for The New York Times. “We should target social accounts for terrorist groups like the Islamic State, and remove videos before they spread, or help those countering terrorist messages to find their voice.”


Schmidt’s suggestion comes in the wake of calls by several prominent politicians to disrupt the effect of these communications. Barack Obama said on Sunday that he wants technology companies to “make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice”. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton similarly urged Silicon Valley to help jam a stick in the churning spokes of ISIS’s propaganda machine. “We need to put the great disrupters at work at disrupting ISIS,” she said at the Saban Forum in Washington on Sunday.

In the context of ISIS, Schmidt’s editorial reads like an admission that Silicon Valley is at least partly responsible for the communications it facilitates. He points to the high production values and slick marketability of the videos created by ISIS militants, as well as the extent to which these images appeal to disaffected young people. Seen from this perspective, it is understandable that Schmidt and other Silicon Valley leaders feel pressure to act.

Subjective spell-checkers 

Removing the violent propaganda of terrorists is an important consideration for internet companies, but there will inevitably be questions about what sort of material is deemed violent and hateful when the lines aren’t as pronounced. Schmidt name-checks anti-democratic trolls in Russia and anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar, but how will hate-mitigating measures work closer to home? Will Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric be removed from the internet? What about David Cameron’s name-calling of Jeremy Corbyn as a “terrorist sympathiser”? If so, who will make the call?


Schmidt starts his essay by quoting the influential cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow, who claimed that the internet promised “a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity”. After claiming that Barlow’s promise has in many ways been realised, Schmidt goes on to write about how web access brings with it the potential for negativity: “For all the good people can do with new tools and new inventions, there are always some who will seek to do harm. Ever since there’s been fire, there’s been arson.” 

Putting out fires is understandably a desirable objective, and Schmidt clearly doesn’t want to start stamping out every voice with a dissident edge, but the argument around how the internet should respond to violent communications requires nuance. Hiding greater internet policing behind something as innocuous as a spell-checker may distance it from accusations of censorship, but it also simplifies a complex, problematic issue. A spell-checker suggests there is a single, objective means of expression, and this paints the subjective decision between good and evil as a humble ruling between correct and incorrect.

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