There's been a lot of debate over the past few years about forcing internet platforms -- YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, mainly -- to respond to terrorists (oddly only Muslim terrorists) using those platforms for propaganda and agitation by taking down that content. It's often been discussed under the banner of "countering violent extremism" or CVE. These days, those and other platforms tend to have large staffs reviewing videos, and especially quickly pulling down videos of ISIS promoters calling for attacks on America and Europe. And, in some countries it's now required by law that internet platforms remove such content. And you can certainly understand the gut reaction here: someone calling you evil and encouraging attacks on you is seriously unnerving.
One of the points that we make about this, though, is that while many, many people think it's "easy" to determine which content is "good" and which content is "bad," it's not. The areas of gray are vast and murky. One example we pointed to is that when YouTube was first pressured into taking down terrorist propaganda videos, it resulted in YouTube killing a channel that was documenting atrocities in Syria. Understanding the difference between promoting violence and documenting violence is not easy.
And here's another example. You may have seen the following news clip floating around, involving a Trump-connected Pastor named Robert Jeffress explaining on a news program why the Bible says it's okay to assassinate Kim Jong Un and go to war with North Korea.
.@robertjeffress: "The Bible gives @POTUS the moral authority to use whatever force necessary... to take out an evildoer like Kim Jong-un." pic.twitter.com/UQZTE8fwzS
— Fox News (@FoxNews) August 9, 2017
That video clip is all over the news this week and can be found all over the internet. The copy I'm posting above is from Twitter, but I'm sure it can be found elsewhere as well. But what if, instead of an evangelical pastor, that statement were coming from a Muslim cleric, and instead of North Korea and Kim Jong Un it talked about America and Donald Trump? Would it still be all over social media, or would people be demanding that the internet take it down?
And this question applies no matter what you think of the video above. I'm not making a statement one way or the other on the content of it, even if I have an opinion about that. My point is simply that when we demand that platforms pull down "radical" content pushing for "violent extremism," it's really, really difficult to distinguish between the video above and some of what, say, ISIS releases.
This is a point that I think frequently gets lost in these discussions. People think that it's easy to tell what's "bad" because it's easy for them to determine what is bad in their opinion or bad to them. But setting up general rules that scale across an entire platform is almost impossible. And even if you argue that the context of this video is different from my Muslim cleric example, you're only helping to make my point. Because that would mean that anyone reviewing the video to determine if it stays up or down would have to become knowledgeable in the overall context -- which in this case could require understanding centuries of global religious views and conflicts. I'm sorry, but Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and everyone else can't hire thousands of PhDs in all related fields to review these videos (within hours) with the level of understanding and context necessary to make a judgment call on each and every one.
None of this is to say that the platforms need to leave everything up (or take everything down). But if you're going to require platforms to police content, you need to at least recognize that any "rules" on this stuff will lead to rules you don't like. Rules that say a Muslim cleric's call for war on America is not allowed will almost certainly lead to the video above also not being allowed. Maybe some people are comfortable with neither being allowed, but the situation sure gets tricky quickly...