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Extremists Are Threatening ‘Mayhem’ at Polling Sites. Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt on Preventing Election Day Violence

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(Miss this week’s The Leadership Brief? This interview below was delivered to the inbox of Leadership Brief subscribers on Sunday morning, Nov. 1; to receive weekly emails of conversations with the world’s top CEOs and business decisionmakers, click here.)

“I don’t think we’ve seen a moment in recent memory where we have a day, an election specifically, that seems so likely to be marred by violence,” says Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive officer of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the 107-year-old organization set up to stop anti-Semitism and “to secure justice and fair treatment to all.” Before joining the ADL in 2015, Greenblatt was an entrepreneur who co-founded, and then sold, Ethos Water to Starbucks; he has brought a tech-savvy, data-driven approach to combatting hate crimes, focusing heavily on social media. He was a leading force in the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, which resulted in more than 1,100 corporations temporarily pulling ads from Facebook. He has worked closely with Sacha Baron Cohen: it was at an ADL event in 2019 that Baron Cohen, in a then rare out-of-character appearance, burst onto the scene as a stinging critic of social media as a forum for hate speech.

ADL’s research team closely tracks the activities of hate groups, and under Greenblatt, ADL established the Center for Technology and Society in Silicon Valley to use tools like machine learning and AI to track slanderous speech and share information with law enforcement and public officials. The center is staffed by techies who have previously worked at Reddit, Lyft and Twitter.

Greenblatt, who also worked in the Obama Administration as the director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, joined TIME recently for a video conversation on the ADL’s work to ensure election security and its efforts to monitor and call out hate groups on tech platforms.

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(This interview with Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

How concerned are you about Election Day intimidation and violence at polling places?

I’m deeply concerned. We’ve seen a real convergence between some of the extremists, particularly right-wing extremists, and the upcoming presidential election. Unfortunately, ADL already had been seeing extremists localizing around the election and threatening to not only cause mayhem on the streets but to bring that focus to polling places. These are people who are enthusiastic about literally things like race war or civil unrest.

What are some of the particulars that you’re concerned about?

Poll watching is not a new term. It’s actually quite an old term, and it’s usually associated with voter suppression.

What specific steps are you taking, and what will help forestall violence?

We’re actively tracking the bad guys. Not just on Facebook and Twitter, not just in the public Internet but also the networks that they use. We’re sharing information with the authorities. So what are we doing? Actively briefing elected officials, their staffs, specifically law enforcement at the federal, state and local level to ensure that all the various actors are as prepared as possible for the potential threats that could unfold specifically on Election Day—but even around it too. We’re worried less about Election Day. It’s also election week. It could be election month.

Facebook recently changed its policy on Holocaust denial. Why did you think it took so long?

ADL, for almost 10 years, has been calling publicly and privately for Facebook to change its policies, to classify Holocaust denial and distortion as a form of hate speech. Let’s be clear. Holocaust denialism or Holocaust distortion is pseudoscience at best, but in reality it’s anti-Semitism, plain and simple. For thousands of years, people have tried to delegitimize the Jewish people. This is just another form of delegitimization. And so we have brought this to their attention publicly and privately. It’s a legitimate question: Why did it take almost 10 years? And they had made, over time, positive changes to other policies but stubbornly held onto this outrageous policy, even in the face of the undeniable threat of anti-Semitism.

Why now?

I do believe that the public pressure has had something to do with it. Specifically, the Stop Hate for Profit campaign that ADL helped to organize in the summer with NAACP, Color of Change and Common Sense Media, and all the groups that called out the prevalence of hate speech and other kinds of content on Facebook, and the fact that it is being subsidized by advertisers. Having over 1,100 of the biggest brands on the planet say they’re going to come off the platform—that sends a message.

We're worried less about Election Day. It's also Election Week. It could be Election Month.

What was the genesis of the Stop Hate for Profit campaign?

The Civil Rights Coalition really came together this summer after George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight, and we had these different white supremacists and right-wing extremists organizing in broad daylight through Facebook groups. And we brought that to Facebook’s attention. They didn’t move quickly at all.

What was the underlying strategy behind the campaign?

The reason why this toxic content is up on Facebook is because it’s subsidized with advertising dollars. So we say to the advertisers, “Hey, you need to stop subsidizing this content, and it’s a matter of common decency, let alone brand safety.” We had the biggest brands in the world. And what they all basically said was, “We don’t want again our brands exposed to this kind of poison.” The day that I think Unilever and a couple of the companies announced, Facebook dropped like 8%. They lost $56 billion in market cap in a single day.

There was a second phase too, right?

Sacha Baron Cohen helped a great deal with this, he really helped to make it possible. We organized a number of celebrities to take a pause on Instagram. We called it “Insta-freeze.” Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sacha, Orlando Bloom, Jamie Foxx, Michael B. Jordan, Mark Ruffalo. Some of the biggest names in entertainment all stepped back, and in the weeks since, Facebook announced they were pulling down QAnon content. Reputational pressure still matters.

How fundamental is engagement with extreme speech to Facebook’s business model?

You know the old adage about local news, “If it bleeds, it leads?” We know that extremism equals engagement. And you see this with the prevalence of polarizing speech, and you see this with how these toxic memes move so quickly across their services. The consequences are profound. Facebook has been weaponized for genocide in South Asia. In Myanmar. It’s fueled violence against Muslims in India. Facebook and social media have really allowed extremists to move from the margins into the mainstream. The algorithmic amplification of this content is incredibly consequential. The business model really needs to be examined because it’s done so much harm.

(In a statement, Facebook said, “Any suggestion that we benefit from hate shows a misunderstanding of how our business works. We’ve made massive investments to keep hate and other harmful content off of the platform. Over the past three months we have strengthened our enforcement against militias, conspiracy networks like QAnon and banned holocaust denial and distortion. According to the European Commission, Facebook assessed 95.7% of hate speech reports in less than 24 hours, faster than YouTube and Twitter.”

Do you support government regulation of the social media platforms?

We have seen in recent years the limits of self-regulation. The government has simply got to be more active in trying to ensure that they abide by the same standards that we expect other companies to observe. Businesses have a responsibility to their customers, to shareholders, to society to not allow their platforms to be utilized to spread confusion and hate.

How did Sacha Baron Cohen end up getting the ADL’s leadership award in 2019?

It was after the “Unite the Right” rally. We were very outspoken after the white-supremacist march in Charlottesville and the President made the really horrible comments that he did in the aftermath: “There are very fine people on all sides.” Sacha reached out to me and we started a dialogue, and I learned he was incredibly passionate about issues of civil rights and, in particular, very fired up about the problem with the availability of anti-Semitism on social media services: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter. His speech was one of the most searing and yet accessible explanations of the challenges of social media. It really caught fire. In many ways, he was the inspiration for the Stop Hate for Profit campaign.

I've tried to use innovation to modernize the fight against hate.

When the news broke about the plan to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, you quickly posted a detailed article on the plotters. How important is your research arm to your mission?

We have the best analysts in the world who for decades and decades and decades have been tracking extremists of all types. We have the best data sets on anti-Semitism and extremism. And we’re regularly in touch with law enforcement at the federal, state and local level to ensure that they are aware of what’s happening in their own backyards. We provide hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of tips every year. Intelligence to law enforcement when we see plots kind of emerging that could cause real violence.

It’s pretty disturbing that your Hate Symbols database is 60 pages long.

I’ll share a story. So this work started with the ADL in the 1930s, when a young government agency called the FBI came and said, “Hey, we are having trouble because we don’t have German speakers in our bureau identifying Nazi sympathizers who we know are agitating against America.” So we started working with them and tracking this kind of stuff. Now it’s 80 years later and the Hate Symbols database—we have extraordinarily rich information we collected over time. The iconography of intolerance—from tattoos to insignias to flags to modern-times memes. And we made that readily available to the public because we think it’s critically important that if you’re a small police department in some community and you arrest someone with a tattoo, you need to know what that actually means.

The Center for Technology and Society has made a push to hire techies including engineers, machine-learning experts and interaction designers. How has your background in the private sector and comfort with tech come to bear at ADL?

I’ve tried to use innovation to modernize the fight against hate. You can’t simply rely on the old tools and techniques when young people today are getting their news from TikTok.

Why is this such a ripe environment for conspiracy theories?

Conspiracy theories try to explain the unexplainable. They often try to look for someone to blame. In an environment where elected officials are calling into question basic facts and delegitimizing democratic institutions, that really kind of weakens our defense systems, our societal immune system. It makes us very susceptible to conspiracy theories.


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