At the World Economic Forum and international billionaire side-hug exercise Davos, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg cited “like attacks” and positivity as ways to fight hate groups online. I know tech companies are struggling to meet the US government’s increasingly forceful pleas to eradicate terrorist activity on the internet, but this is getting ridiculous.
Sandberg used a German Facebook initiative to screw with a neo-Nazi Facebook page as an example of an effective counter-attack on extremist speech. The German users “liked” the neo-Nazi page, and posted nice things where there would ordinarily be racist bile. “What was a page filled with hatred and intolerance was then tolerance and messages of hope,” Sandberg said.
This is a preposterous proposition for stopping ISIS. For starters, finding the Facebook pages to pinpoint would be difficult. ISIS recruiters don’t initiate their efforts by saying “JIHAD! AMERICANS SUCK! JOIN US! JIHAD!” Many online communities serving as ISIS recruitment incubators are not explicitly violent, and Facebook bans obviously ISIS-affiliated groups anyways.
Where does Sandberg’s absurd proposition come from? You might argue it’s ingrained in her worldview. After all, “likes” helped propel Facebook to its terrifyingly entrenched position as an information gatekeeper. They do matter. People act like lab rats hitting the cocaine button over and over and over for the positive feedback loop those little blue thumbs-up symbols provide. And strangers do change each others’ minds online—that’s why we’re so worried about ISIS recruiters on Facebook in the first place.
Still, simply liking a comment about peace posted on an ISIS fan page is like mumbling “guns are bad” in the middle of an NRA conference. That’s not how to change someone’s mind, and Sandberg’s suggestion is as absurd as it sounds. Imagine if liking its pages and then mass-posting inspirational quotes on them could hamper terrorism. Jihadi John takes one look at a misspelled fake Marilyn Monroe quote and puts down his gun. Lonely teen recruits realize that Islamic extremism actually isn’t cool after seeing their favorite ISIS Facebook page riddled with corny Minion memes.
It’d be one thing if Sandberg was suggesting a full-time counter-propaganda squad devoted to developing online relationships with potential ISIS-joiners, spending months DMing them about why ISIS is bad and violence is never the answer. Still improbable—but closer to what people would actually need to do to counter the efforts of recruiters.
In addition to “like” attacks, Sandberg said that the best way to fight ISIS is to get former ISIS members to speak up. “The best thing to speak against recruitment by ISIS are the voices of people who were recruited by ISIS, understand what the true experience is, have escaped and have come back to tell the truth,” she said. “Counter-speech to the speech that is perpetuating hate we think by far is the best answer.”
Former ISIS recruits with gripping stories about why joining a violence cult is a bad idea are good counter-propaganda campaigners. Why wouldn’t Sandberg just say that and leave out the whole “like attack” nonsense? Probably because “like attack” sounds better than “just let people who have seen horrible things talk about the horrible things they’ve seen.”
Facebook wants to look like it’s implementing something effective. Tech companies working with the government on counter-terrorism strategy are in a tough position—That’s why they make grandiose but useless gestures like banning “terrorism.” Sandberg’s disturbingly naive suggestion highlights how desperate Facebook is to look proactive.