Google Chairman Eric Schmidt recently announced that Google should pursue efforts to “build tools to help de-escalate tensions in social media – sort of like spell-checkers, but for hate and harassment.”
While that sounds like a fine and noble goal in what has become a free-for-all online world, it is also 100 percent impossible.
Google’s attempt at censoring “hate speech” – which still has yet to receive a formal definition – is dangerous in a number of ways. Because everyone has their own definition of “hate speech,” expecting a group of algorithms in a computer program to define what even human beings may disagree on, is inevitably doomed. Of course, this also places the programmer in ultimate control over what is disfavored speech. Who does Google designate as the “ultimate decider”?
There are other aspects of this concept that Google must consider. While we all are revolted by hateful speech, even efforts to combat it would be stifled by the attempt. How can people fight hateful speech when they cannot directly quote it while writing about it? How can the media report on real-world events if their reporting could be deemed “hate speech”?
Our society receives over 90 percent of its news online, whether through social media or online news sources. Stifling Americans’ access to news that directly impacts them creates an ill-informed country with blinders on to societal problems.
If Google executives deemed Donald Trump’s push to ban Muslim immigration as “hate speech,” news websites who quoted Trump would be penalized from search engines as well.
One would assume that any reasonable study of the subject would require examples to be provided to instruct the reader of what the author intends to abhor, but those quotations also would likely trigger the algorithms banning those guidelines.
While terrorists are successfully exploiting online communications, Internet companies have had a difficult time separating their dangerous activities from efforts by those fighting against them. A case can be made that the videos used by terrorist organizations to instill fear are also the same videos some people may and do use to motivate terrorist opposition.
But there remains an even greater issue for Google to confront. Censorship by Google for even the best intentions threatens to balkanize the Internet, much like the news media have been over the past decade or so. Efforts to differentiate Google by censoring speech will likely drive users to competing search engines such as Yahoo or Bing. It may – and I say will – drive away from Google users who do not want their speech censored, much as the cable news media have balkanized viewers to prefer CNN or Fox News exclusively.
Or worse, Google could control what information Americans receive, just as North Korea and China control the information their citizens receive.
This algorithm change will have negative repercussions. As they say, the road to hell is paved with noble intentions.
Daniel Hickey is director of creative advertising at Hickey Marketing Group, LLC, based in Redlands.