Brittan Heller is director of the Anti-Defamation League’s new center for combatting cyberhate, to be based in Palo Alto, Calif., in Silicon Valley. The announcement of the new center, which was made Sunday at the SXSW Festival, comes in the wake of some 150 bomb threats phoned into Jewish community centers around the country since the beginning of the year, and cyberhate campaigns launched against a number of Jewish journalists during the presidential campaign. Heller joined the ADL last September as its first director of technology and society after working at the Justice Department, where she focused on human rights and cyber issues.
I understand the center has a three-pronged approach to cyberhate.
We’re looking at the problem from multiple angles. It will employ the best technology and seasoned experts that will monitor, analyze and mitigate hate speech and harassment, provide insight to government and policy makers, leverage relationships with law enforcement and develop new strategies to prevent cyberhate.
We are looking to be a command center for responding to cyberhate, which means we will use every tool available to mitigate individual situations and improve the online environment, and expose and stop online harassment.
“It is the new manifestation of the hate ADL has seen for over 100 years.”
How do you define cyberhate?
It is the new manifestation of the hate ADL has seen for over 100 years. People used to burn crosses on lawns, but today they are burning up Twitter. There is not one single definition of cyberhate, but it is a manifestation of real world hate conveyed online.
Since the start of the presidential campaign, there has been an uptick in online anti-Semitism. What can this new office do in response?
The spike in online hate tied to the rhetoric of the campaign has contributed to the reinforcement and normalization of anti-Semitic language on a massive scale. We know that hateful rhetoric and speech can lead to hate crimes.
Over the past few weeks, there have been several cemetery desecrations across the country and more than 150 bomb threats against Jewish institutions — including a half-dozen ADL offices. And white supremacists are stepping up efforts at college campuses to recruit members.
The center is part of ADL’s work to stop this urgent emerging threat. … People were painting swastikas on buildings before the presidential campaign, but with this recent terrifying spike in anti-Semitic activities, ADL wanted to take a proactive stance towards combatting the newest form of anti-Semitism and hate.
Why did the ADL reach out to Omidyar Network for seed money to support this effort?
We thought they were the perfect partners for us to have a meaningful impact in using technology to combat this age-old phenomenon. It is a self-styled “philanthropic investment firm” started by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, and its investment is in the six figures.
Omidyar Network supports ventures based on social impact and we hope to make good use of their investment and to innovate in the tech space. Right now we are operating out of Palo Alto, which is Silicon Valley’s beating heart, so that I can coordinate and collaborate directly with tech companies and others in the industry.
I’m working with them constantly. They have been good partners with ADL for years.
Will the center seek to track down those who spew cyberhate?
The ADL has a long-standing relationship with law enforcement and security experts, but our function in the center will be different than law enforcement. We will share reports and data and will provide new efforts to involve civil society in the fight against cyberhate. For example, we are sponsoring the Natan Innovation Grant that will provide a total of $50,000 in micro-grants to individuals with new, effective methods for combating cyberhate.
What has the center been dealing with since it opened several months ago?
The ADL looks at all forms of hate and over the last few months it has been responding to reports of cyberhate against all types of individuals, including Muslim Americans. The latest FBI hate crime statistics – 2015 – showed an increase in anti-Semitic activity along with a rise in hate crimes against Muslims.
The ADL has been dealing with cyberhate for years. What’s changing now in that fight?
The ADL put out its first report on cyberspace in 1985 and has helped over 22,000 individuals who have reported cyberhate-related incidents. Now with the center, we will be moving into real-time quantitative analysis of cyberhate along with industry outreach and new technological projects to create a safer and more tolerant online space. …
The ADL is already a leader in exposing and stopping cyberbullying and online hate. This center will take us to the next level because we will be able to focus our efforts and devote more resources and push new innovations in the tech space. We’re looking at virtual reality and artificial intelligence to see what prospects they offer in the fight against cyberhate. The center is doing what nobody else has attempted.