Facebook, Google, Twitter and Microsoft join forces to tackle extremist content

Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Google’s YouTube have announced a new collaborative effort to combat extremist material on their platforms, involving a shared database of information about prohibited content.

The leading internet companies will create a common log of unique digital fingerprints assigned to videos and images – known as “hashes” – for content that is deemed to promote terrorism. According to a joint statement, this could include terrorist-recruitment videos or violent terrorist imagery.

The shared database will mean that when one platform flags and remove content – described as “the most extreme and egregious terrorist images and videos we have removed from our services” – the others can use its hash to identify and eradicate the content on their own system, dependent on how it fits against their respective policies.

“Each company will continue to apply its own policies and definitions of terrorist content when deciding whether to remove content when a match to a shared hash is found,” the statement explains. “And each company will continue to apply its practice of transparency and review for any government requests, as well as retain its own appeal process for removal decisions and grievances.”

The announcement of the collaboration comes in the wake of a demand on Sunday from the European Commission, that Facebook, Twitter, Google’s YouTube and Microsoft do more to tackle hate speech on their platforms.

“If Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Microsoft want to convince me and the ministers that the non-legislative approach can work, they will have to act quickly and make a strong effort in the coming months,” EU justice commissioner Vêra Jourová told the Financial Times.

Far-right manipulation of Google

Elsewhere, academics have called on Google to urgently address its search rankings, because of evidence that it is being “manipulated and controlled” by far right-wing propagandists.

The call follows a report in The Observer, which found a range of connections between top search results and far right propaganda. For example, nine out of the ten top search results for “are jews” linked to antisemitic hate sites, and Google offered the search suggestion “are jews evil”.

In response, Google removed some of the search results reported by The Observer. “Our search results are a reflection of the content across the web,” a spokesperson for the company said. “This means that sometimes, unpleasant portrayals of sensitive subject matter online can affect what search results appear for a given query.”

Julia Powles, a researcher in law and technology at the University of Cambridge, told The Guardian that Google’s reaction was “the classic PR response”, and that the issue raises serious concerns about how Google presents itself as a neutral entity.

“They keep using this analogy that they’re like a card catalogue, but they’re really more like a card shark that can be gamed,” said Powles. “It raises deeply disturbing issues about the democratic distribution of information.”

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