Facebook's Training A.I. to Spot ISIS, al Qaeda Posts -- Nazis Come Next

By Sam Schechner and Deepa Seetharaman Features Dow Jones Newswires

Assailed for not doing enough to combat online misinformation and extremism, Facebook Inc. says it is making big strides in one area: removing propaganda posts and accounts from Islamic State and al Qaeda.

Continue Reading Below

The social media company said Tuesday that it has in recent months focused on training artificial intelligence software to identify extremist content specifically from those two terrorist groups to hone its automated technology. Facebook says that has boosted the speed with which it removes posts and accounts from the groups compared with when it announced the initiative in June -- with 99% of the content it removes from the groups detected before being flagged by Facebook users.

Now, Facebook executives acknowledge, comes the hard part: translating some of that narrow success to a broader deluge of extremist content, from white supremacist groups' pages to hate speech posts -- or even Islamic State videos that sport a different look to avoid the automated dragnet.

"One of the dangers there is that we're dealing with a nimble set of organizations that frequently change the way that they behave," said Brian Fishman, lead policy manager for counterterrorism at Facebook. "We need to keep training our machines so that they stay current."

Facebook is stepping up its counterterrorism activity at a time when it and other tech firms are being buffeted on topics ranging from their treatment of smaller rivals to their role in spreading political misinformation.

In September, Facebook. admitted that Russian actors manipulated its platform to sway American political discourse, later admitting that roughly 126 million Americans saw at least one of more than 80,000 posts from pages spawned by the pro-Kremlin group Internet Research Agency between June 2015 and August 2017.

Continue Reading Below

Twitter Inc. and YouTube, a unit of Alphabet Inc.'s Google, have also been under fire over the past year for allowing misinformation, hateful speech and terrorist content to spread across their platforms.

The deeper challenge for Facebook's push to use A.I. to counter online extremism is that A.I. tools are only as good as the data that are used to train them. Tech platforms like Facebook rely heavily on software to sift through the reams of content posted to their sites every day. But they need huge numbers of categorized terrorist videos and pictures they can use to train their algorithms what to look for -- something that might not always be available.

Islamic State and al Qaeda "are prolific in creating content, and it makes it easier to train" a machine to identify it, said Monika Bickert, Facebook's head of global policy management. About 83% of known terror content, including images, videos or text posts, are taken down within an hour of being posted on Facebook, Ms. Bickert said.

Another roadblock is that many postings and pages, particularly text postings, require judgments from content reviewers -- leading the firm to increase their ranks. Facebook will employ 7,000 content reviewers by the end of 2017, up from 4,500 in May, Ms. Bickert said.

Ms. Bickert said a subset of each content reviewer's decisions are audited by Facebook every week to ensure quality and accuracy. But she acknowledged that reviewers still make some mistakes.

"A beheading is easier to enforce than hate speech," Ms. Bickert said. "Certain policies are easier to enforce than others."

Write to Sam Schechner at sam.schechner@wsj.com and Deepa Seetharaman at Deepa.Seetharaman@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 28, 2017 19:14 ET (00:14 GMT)