We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.


Facebook Is Enlisting Human Experts and AI to Fight Terrorism

Technology alone won’t defeat the social network’s problems with extremist content.

Heightened security was put in place on the streets of New York City after London's recent terror attacks.

Following recent terror attacks, politicians criticized social networks for providing safe spaces for extremism. Now Facebook has announced that it’s developing AI and employing a team of 150 experts in order to become "a hostile place for terrorists."

Mark Zuckerberg has explained that, in his utopian vision of the future, many of the problems that his social network faces—among them violent content, child abuse, fake news, and extremism—will be eased by the development of artificial intelligence. Powerful algorithms, the theory goes, could sniff out offensive content and rogue users to shut the problems down.

But to date his vision has yet to materialize. Instead, fake news is being fact-checked by third parties and thousands of people are employed to sift through potentially offensive content. That's all for the good, but it's not the automated solution that Zuck promises.

Now, though, Facebook has described how it’s at least making use of artificial intelligence to attenuate the successes of extremist recruitment and propaganda. In an announcement, Monika Bickert, the company’s director of global policy management, and Brian Fishman, its counterterrorism policy manager, explain that the social network’s use of AI against terrorism is “fairly recent,” but argue that it’s already having an effect.

It even gives some concrete examples of what it’s doing:

  • using image recognition to identify previously removed content so that it never makes a reappearance
  • analyzing text to understand language associated with terrorism and spot propaganda
  • measuring social ties between regular and rogue users to identify recruitment activities
  • and monitoring how repeat offenders create new accounts to shut them down sooner

The big question is, of course, whether any of this will work. Other experiments using AI to solve knotty social issues online—such as Google’s bid to stamp out hate speech—haven’t come to much. A large factor is the fact that humans still often find ways to outsmart even the cleverest of AIs: in Google's case, by subverting language so that AI doesn’t identify the true meaning of a statement, for instance.

Facebook knows that to be a problem. Indeed, it says that “this work is never finished because it is adversarial, and the terrorists are continuously evolving their methods, too.”

That may be why it’s admitting that technology alone is not enough. The company has also built a team of 150 counterterrorism experts—including former academics, prosecutors, and law enforcement agents—to help contextualize content and spot real-world problems that might require intervention. It also confesses to the fact that it’s not an island, so it will continue to work with other social networks and governments to crack the problem.

By combining human insight with AI grunt work, Facebook is of course maximizing its odds of success in stamping out a problem that has plagued it for years. But only time will tell if together they’re smart enough to outwit the extremists.

(Read more: Facebook, “If Only AI Could Save Us from Ourselves,”  “Fighting ISIS Online,” “Theresa May Wants to End 'Safe Spaces' for Terrorists on the Internet. What Does That Even Mean?”)

Keep up with the latest in AI at EmTech Digital.
Don't be left behind.

March 25-26, 2019
San Francisco, CA

Register now
Heightened security was put in place on the streets of New York City after London's recent terror attacks.
More from Connectivity

What it means to be constantly connected with each other and vast sources of information.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

    10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

    Ad-free website experience

You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.