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"We Can Prove This Is an Attack Motivated by Bias"

The Anti-Defamation League’s woman in Silicon Valley on spurring tech to confront the vitriol it’s helped spread.

Brittan Heller

Brittan Heller


This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Name: Brittan Heller
Director of technology and society for the Anti-Defamation League
Residence: Santa Clara County

San Francisco: You helped found the ADL’s Center on Technology and Society in Silicon Valley. What’s one of the group’s success stories?
Brittan Heller: Last year, we started receiving reports from journalists about the amount of [anti-Semitic] harassment they were getting, specifically on Twitter. So we did a big data–based analysis and were able to measure 2.6 million of these anti-Semitic tweets. Ninety percent of those tweets were directed at 10 journalists. We were able to go back to Twitter and say, we’ve done this analysis, we can tell who’s doing this and why, and we can prove this is an attack motivated by bias and discrimination. We issued a set of 25 recommendations to the technology community and worked closely with Twitter to implement a plan to help people get control over their experience. Twitter refashioned it terms of service, introduced tools for people being harassed, and kicked 2,000 white supremacist accounts off the platform.

What responsibility do tech companies have to police or monitor—or at least respond to—the amount of hate speech they’re hosting? 
Especially in the wake of Charlottesville, it’s clear that we all have a reason to step up and speak out against hate. Technology has been a platform for hate to spread, so [technology companies] have to respond. As an example, we’ve been working with the dating site Bumble to help them identify hate symbols on their platform. We’ve also seen a wave of actions, like GoDaddy and Google removing the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer. Other sites, like OkCupid, are removing the profiles of white supremacists.

It seems preposterous that it takes someone like Heather Heyer dying in Charlottesville for these companies to finally get that message.
I like to think we’re in the adolescence of the Internet. Maybe that’s part of the growing up: seeing that online speech has real-world consequences.

What was your reaction to the memo from James Damore, the Google employee, and its subsequent fallout?
We’re still formulating our response to that. But one thing I can tell you is that because I’m here in Silicon Valley, I can do consultations with individual tech companies. These are all confidential, but it’s a good way for us to push them, to help them forge solutions and bring a voice to populations who feel their views aren’t being heard by technology companies.

What role has President Trump played in the rise of hate speech you’ve been tracking?
His rhetoric during the campaign certainly played a role in emboldening extremists, especially online. So did his response to the Charlottesville tragedy. Our data shows that there has been an increase in hate incidents and speech online.

Can you tell us about your personal experience with being doxxed online—where sensitive personal information is released over the web? 
Ten years ago, I was the Jane Doe in one of the first cyber-harassment lawsuits [against the administrator of an online messaging board and Internet trolls]. I was doxxed as part of that, and it turns your life upside down. It makes you distrust all the people around you. For me, it was things like my class schedule, when I went to the gym, where I lived, my phone number. It got to the point where I had to get law enforcement to escort me to my finals. And it made me withdraw from my social life. I stopped speaking up in class. The harm people experience when they’re being harassed online has profound impacts on their daily life.

In many ways, it feels like we’ve moved backward, not forward, in terms of combating hate speech.
I feel like there’s no place that hasn’t been touched by this. There were swastikas painted on my street recently. I used to prosecute genocide and war crimes at the International Criminal Court and with the U.S. government, and since starting with the ADL, I’m seeing the same things that we witnessed in Rwanda, the same catalyzing speech. So the best advice we give people to take a personal stance against hate is to speak out against it when they see it. Have those hard conversations with your relatives. Ask somebody why it’s funny when they make a racist joke. You don’t have to do it in an aggressive way. What changes people’s minds is dialogue—feeling that there’s mutual hearing and understanding. So while people may despair when they see the KKK marching through the streets of America, it’s these individual interactions that end up making the difference.


Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco 

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