Executives from Google and Facebook have faced enormous political pressure from forces as diverse as Pres. Obama himself to the Israel Lobby, to rid their sites of Islamist content. Over the years, videos portraying ISIS beheadings have outraged the public (though not on YouTube or Facebook, which immediately removes them). Now it appears that the Israel Lobby and their right-wing allies are demanding further action restricting access for videos they deem offensive.
The companies are discussing various methods to automate the removal of the videos, which would supposedly wipe the sites clean of Islamist extremism in a more thorough, speedy fashion. Currently, they use an algorithm which help police videos which violate copyright. If someone uploads a video whose content has already been flagged, an algorithm prevents it being uploaded again by another user. They plan to use a similar process to flag offensive videos by detecting whether they’ve been previously censored.
However, there is a fly in the ointment regarding this process. The companies have invited into this discussion a neocon NGO which is a product of the Israel Lobby. The group, Counter-Extremism Network (CEN), hired a computer scientist from Dartmouth College who claims to have developed software which it can successfully police these sites for offending content. Microsoft has, somewhat alarmingly, agreed to fund and provide research support to develop the professor’s system for its websites.
The companies have rightly displayed some skepticism about the group’s “generous” offer. CEN is a neocon organization founded by a pro-Israel apparachik from the Bush administration, Mark Wallace. Wallace is a veteran GOP consultant, turned capitalist entrepreneur and anti-Iran warrior. He also founded a sister-organization, United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI-Rightweb profile and my own profile of it), which targeted (often falsely) American companies it claimed were doing business with Iran and violating the sanctions regime.
The nadir of UANI’s vitriolic anti-Iran campaign was its targeting of international shipping magnate, Victor Restis. In these cases, Wallace and his cronies would approach a corporate target and demand a large donation in return for ceasing the embarrassing publicity UANI directed at the victims. Most preferred to pay up. Unlike the other corporate targets, Restis fought back and sued UANI for libel. The suit proceeded in federal court until the Justice Department intervened, claiming that moving forward would jeopardize U.S. national security. The judge then dismissed the case, refusing to permit Restis to clear his name.
Journalists speculated that UANI was using information supplied to it by foreign intelligence sources, specifically the Mossad or other Israeli outlets. The Justice Department intervention was reported to be a favor offered by the Obama administration to the Israeli government, so as not to reveal its covert intervention in American politics. The favor wasn’t repaid when Netanyahu became the foremost opponent of the Iran nuclear deal opposed also by UANI.
Now that the agreement is a done deal, Wallace appears to have moved on. Instead of Iran being the bogeyman, now it is ISIS. With the recent outcry over Islamist attacks in Paris, San Bernardino and Ft. Hood, Islamism has become the target of choice for the Israel Lobby and allies like Wallace.
The group’s name is a misnomer. It doesn’t fight against “extremism.” It fights against Islam. There are countless violent extremists in the world who aren’t Muslim. But CEN has no interest in them. I’m attaching a screenshot of its list of targets. Only four non-Muslim groups: the Ku Klux Klan, Golden Dawn, Jobbik, and a German neo-Nazi party. As opposed to 25 Muslim terror organizations.
To give you a sense of how ridiculous these designations are: the Muslim Brotherhood is a group which participated in a democratic election and won the Egyptian presidency. Only to have the democratic government violently overthrown in a military coup. If anyone is a terrorist, it is the putchist al-Sisi, who overthrew Mohammed Morsi. The “Nusra Front” is also on the list. This bona fide Islamist extremist group is Israel’s current ally in the war against the Assad regime.
Among prominent groups missing from this list are violent Israeli settler groups like Hilltop Youth and Jewish Underground, which have murdered many Palestinian civilians. I’m also surprised the BDS movement isn’t on the list. No doubt that’s an oversight that will be corrected.
Joining Wallace in founding CEN was ex-Sen. Joe Lieberman. On its board are other Israel Lobby veterans, Dennis Ross and Irwin Cotler. CEN’s name is a misnomer. It is not anti-extremist, it is anti-Muslim.
It’s important to note a parallel campaign by the Israeli government to pressure these social media platforms to censor content it deems hate speech, by which it means critical of Israel and the Occupation. There can be no doubt that although CEN hasn’t formally joined with this initiative, the two are bound up with each other tighter than Siamese twins.
Which raises the critical point: who decides what is “extremist?” Clearly, a beheading is extremist. An imam’s sermon calling for the extermination of non-Muslims qualifies. Overtly advocating violence qualifies. But what about a Hamas video that advocates resistance against Israel’s illegal Occupation which has killed tens of thousands over the past 50 years? Or a Hamas video which depicts the devastation of Gaza in the aftermath of the 2014 war? Does a Hezbollah video depicting the destruction of wide swaths of southern Lebanon after the 2006 Israeli invasion quality as “extremist?” In other words, is all content published by these groups censored by virtue of their designation as terrorists? Is that really what we wish the internet to become? A restricted space policed by ideologically-suspect algorithms?
I would strongly urge these technology companies to develop their own solutions to this problem and not rely on far-right Islamophobic ideologues for methods to censor the internet.