A formidable double act

14 Feb 2018  |  Raymond Snoddy 
A formidable double act

Amber Rudd and Keith Weed have, quite by accident, formed a double act which could lead to change at Google and Facebook, writes Raymond Snoddy

What have Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Keith Weed, chief marketing officer of Unilever, in common?

At first glance very little. Weed, so far as anyone knows, is not at the moment trying to position himself to be the next Prime Minister of the UK, although he might just share Rudd's views on an irrational hard Brexit.

Both, however, have this week taken important steps that could put renewed pressure on tech firms such as Facebook and Google to make much greater efforts to stop their platforms being conduits for jihadist propaganda and assorted hate speech of all kinds.

Both Rudd and Weed come equipped with large sticks, but if anything, it is the Unilever marketing man who can probably make the most immediate impact if he chooses to do so.

Personal consumer goods and food maker Unilever is the world's second largest advertiser so a threat to withdraw advertising from sites that "create division in society and promote anger and hate" should get the attention of those involved. Particularly as it was delivered in their own back yard in California, as indeed was the Rudd initiative.

Keith Weed warned that the company could not continue to "prop up" a digital supply chain that delivered over a quarter of its advertising to customers, yet in terms of transparency was "little better than a swamp."

The multi-billionaires would be ill-advised to ignore such a warning coming as it does amid many other signs of opposition, political and commercial, to the behaviour and apparent arrogance of the tech companies.

In the UK we have just had the announcement of the review into the sustainability of newspapers with a remit that includes examining whether the social media giants fairly compensate news groups for their expensively verified content.

A further kick is likely to come from the Select Committee of Damian Collins over the spreading of fake news.

Weed made his position absolutely clear when he went on to argue that "fake news, racism, sexism, terrorists spreading messages of hate, toxic content - parts of the internet we have ended up with - is a million miles from where we thought it would take us."

It should not be forgotten that the named proprietors of the swamp, the purveyors of social division and the promoters of anger and hate control two thirds of digital advertising in the US and 60 per cent in the UK and some estimates put the British percentage higher than that.

The social media giants should not for a moment assume that Weed was bluffing. When Proctor & Gamble, the world's largest advertising group made similar threats last year they were followed up by the removal of more than $100 million (£72 million) in advertising.

Rather tellingly P&G noticed no drop in sales as a result which should definitely be an encouragement to the others.

Amber Rudd has a very different stick to wave at the tech companies - ultimately legislation and fines - although for now she is speaking in a soft voice and hoping for co-operation through persuasion across the social media industry.

Alongside the usual plotting and leaking the Home Secretary has managed to do something creative and useful.

She backed a small London company specialising in artificial intelligence, ASI Data Sciences, with £600,000 to create a tool that would identify and block IS material. The aim was merely to demonstrate what is possible but it still might turn out to be the most cost-effective £600,000 the Home Office has spent in recent years.

What ASI has apparently done is use thousands of hours of violent IS material to "train" the system to pick out and block such material. Anything identified as questionable is then reviewed by human eyes. The algorithms were able to pick up 94 per cent of IS material after surveying output on a website handling 5 million digital items a day. The software threw up only 0.005 per cent of non-IS items by mistake - or a manageable 250.

There are of course caveats at this early stage. The jihadists could change the way they identify themselves but without their violent signatures, which presumably the software is picking up. There will also be a cat and mouse game as the terrorists try to find new internet outlets.

Yet the principle of what has been achieved sounds very promising. What if you really could achieve the impossible with artificial intelligence - sifting out terror and hate at the speed of light, or to be more precise, the speed at which the stuff is transmitted?

The Rudd aim was to prove that it could be done and so set an example to the vastly better financed tech companies. It is up to them now to increase their investments in artificial intelligence to carry - in the first instance - the fight online to the jihadi terrorists.

Even the most extreme supporters of the "open web" would surely not protest at the intelligent removal of IS communications depicting beheading and other forms of violence from the internet. Their online propaganda will increasingly be an even more important battlefield now that the jihadis are on the run in terms of controlling territory.

That would be a great advance on its own.

Once that has been achieved we can move on to the debates about racism, sexism, anger, hate and Keith Weed's "divisions in society " and how they could or should be tackled.

Here, of course, the definitional problems begin.

How can hate speech, racism, sexism and even anger be isolated in any meaningful way?

And perfectly honest arguments can be judged, obviously, as fomenting divisions in society particularly by dictators everywhere.

Both initiatives would do well to concentrate on trying to persuade the social media groups to dig out obvious extremism and hate speech and avoid the swamp of political correctness.

Unilever can advertise where it wants - but should avoid knee-jerk Virgin trains and Daily Mail situations.

Despite the obvious worries Amber Rudd and Keith Weed have formed a formidable - if accidental - double act which could lead to genuine change.


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