Facebook boosts A.I. to block terrorist propaganda

Under intense political pressure to better block terrorist propaganda on the internet, Facebook is leaning more on artificial intelligence.

The social-media firm said Thursday that it has expanded its use of A.I. in recent months to identify potential terrorist postings and accounts on its platform -- and at times to delete or block them without review by a human. In the past, Facebook and other tech giants relied mostly on users and human moderators to identify offensive content. Even when algorithms flagged content for removal, these firms generally turned to humans to make a final call.

Companies have sharply boosted the volume of content they have removed in the last two years, but these efforts haven't proven effective enough to tamp down a groundswell of criticism from governments and advertisers. They have accused Facebook, Google parent Alphabet Inc. and others of complacency over the proliferation of inappropriate content -- in particular, posts or videos deemed as extremist propaganda or communication -- on their social networks.

In response, Facebook disclosed new software that it says it is using to better police its content. One tool, in use for several months now, combs the site for known terrorist imagery, like beheading videos, in order to stop them from being reposted, executives said Thursday. Another set of algorithms attempts to identify -- and sometimes autonomously block -- propagandists from opening new accounts after they have already been kicked off the platform. Another experimental tool uses A.I. that has been trained to identify language used by terrorist propagandists.

"When it comes to imagery related to terrorism, context is everything," said Monika Bickert, Facebook's head of global policy management. "For us, technology is an important part of flagging it. People are invaluable in understanding that context."

Facebook says that it sends all ambiguous removals to humans to review -- and is hiring large numbers of new content moderators to go through it. But the firm's new moves reflect a growing willingness to trust machines when it comes to thorny tasks like distinguishing inappropriate content from satire or news coverage -- something firms resisted after a spate of attacks just two years ago as a potential threat to free speech.

One factor in the changed approach, executives say, has been the improved ability of algorithms to identify unambiguously terrorist content in some cases, while referring other content for human review.

"Our A.I. can know when it can make a definitive choice, and when it can't make a definitive choice," said Brian Fishman, lead policy manager for counterterrorism at Facebook. "That's something new."

Another factor in the fresh A.I. push: intense pressure from advertisers and governments, particularly in Europe. British Prime Minister Theresa May ratcheted up complaints this month in the wake of a series of deadly terror attacks in the U.K. Just days before a general election, meanwhile, the campaigns for both of Britain's two main parties pulled political ads from Alphabet's YouTube video-sharing site after being alerted those ads were appearing before extremist content.

Germany earlier this year proposed a bill that could fine firms up to EUR50 million ($56 million) for failing to remove fake news or hate speech -- including terrorist content. The U.K. and France published a counterterrorism action plan this week that calls on tech giants to go beyond deleting content that is flagged, and instead identify it beforehand to prevent publication.

"There have been promises made. They are insufficient," French President Emmanuel Macron said Tuesday.

Facebook has already rolled out software to identify other questionable content such as child pornography and fake news stories. Ahead of French and German elections this year, the company began tagging "disputed" stories when outside news organizations ruled them as false.

Social media firms including Facebook, Yahoo Inc. and Twitter Inc. are adamant that they want to stamp out terrorism on their platforms -- and already do a lot to remove such content. Twitter says it is expanding its use of automated technology to combat terrorist content, too. From July through December last year, Twitter said internal tools flagged 74% of the 376,890 accounts it removed.

YouTube says it is collaborating with the other social media firms on a shared database of previously identified terrorist imagery, which allows the companies to more quickly identify posts that use them. But the company doesn't use technology to screen new content for policy violations, saying computers lack the nuance to determine whether a previously uncategorized video is extremist.

"These are complicated and challenging problems, but we are committed to doing better and being part of a lasting solution," a YouTube spokesman said.

(Jack Nicas contributed to this article.)

(END) Dow Jones Newswires