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Could social media — often used to spread extremism — play a role in preventing hate crimes?

In this March 13, 2019, file photo Facebook, Messenger and Instagram apps are are displayed on an iPhone in New York.
Jenny Kane
In this March 13, 2019, file photo Facebook, Messenger and Instagram apps are are displayed on an iPhone in New York.

Global leaders speaking at the Eradicate Hate Summit, being held in downtown Pittsburgh, share a common goal: find solutions to prevent the spread of extremism and stop hate crimes before they occur.

Among the topics discussed Monday was the ubiquitous nature of hate across the world and what tools are used to strengthen extremist causes. Speakers did not mince words about a key culprit in extremism: social media.

Johnathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, referred to it as a “superspreader of disinformation and hate.”

“No service exemplifies this more so than Facebook,” he said citing recent revelations by a whistleblower about the social media giant’s ineffectiveness at curbing hate speech and its role as an organizing platform for the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. “Facebook lies and dissembles to the public while it rakes in billions in profits. Its algorithms amplify the most extreme voices.”

Facebook has been home to countless private groups where hate speech and disinformation run rampant. One such group, the Pittsburgh Area Police Breakroom, included many current and retired local police officers. Members made transphobic comments and called Black Lives Matter protesters “terrorists” and “thugs.”

Representatives of Google, Facebook and Twitter at the summit described the difficulty confronting hate organizations because of their ability to adapt.

“Technology moves faster than policy,” said Nick Pickles, Twitter senior director of global public policy strategy, development and partnerships. He argued solutions designed one day might not work to prevent hate and extremism the next day.

Brian Fishman, Facebook policy director, agreed.

“There is an evolution over time of the way bad actors are representing themselves on the internet,” said Fishman. “That trend is hard to deal with from a platform perspective”

It’s also difficult to investigate each piece of content on the site, whether by humans or artificial intelligence, because of the volume of content every day, according to Fishman.

Alexandria Walden, Google global head of human rights, spoke about the need to balance protecting platform users from hate with a commitment to freedom of speech.

The company’s primary approach with YouTube has been to remove content that goes against the company’s guidelines.

But that doesn’t let social media companies off the hook when it comes to addressing the rise in hate. All of the experts admitted there is a need to prevent hate content from getting onto social media in the first place.

It’s a difficult balance, argued Pickles.

He warned that when creating policies to curb extremism, platforms must be careful to avoid impacting positive organizing. Social media sites have served as emergency communication tools in crises across the globe. Social justice causes have relied on social media to exchange information and organize demonstrations from Egypt to Pittsburgh.

No solutions seem perfect, but one company is working with social media giants to connect users searching for extremist content with services that might prevent radicalization.

Vidhya Ramalingam is the founder and CEO of Moonshot, which builds analytical technology to look at how users consume extremist content and conspiracies.

Moonshot works with Facebook, Google and other streaming and content platforms. The company is responsible for advertisements that appear in Google searches; According to Ramalingam, users searching for extremist content could see an advertisement for anger and grief counseling.

“Over 15% of those that we sent to this website which offered a text message-based counseling session, returned to the website on their own accord,” Ramalingam said. “If you offer services to these audiences, they might just think about it. And they might take it up when they’re ready.”

According to Ramalingam, Moonshot’s most successful project was redirecting hateful searches to a mindfulness exercise where users were directed to pause and practice mindful breathing.

Former President George W. Bush spoke in a brief pre-recorded video thanking the summit’s organizers for taking on the fight against hate.

“We must reject hatred, violence and bigotry. We must embrace pluralism, compassion and respect for all human life,” he said. “This the bridge across our nation’s deepest divisions.”

The Eradicate Hate Summit continues through Wednesday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.