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The Cybersecurity 202: Synagogue shooting shows that hate speech isn't just a social media company problem

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with Bastien Inzaurralde


Good morning! I’m Cat Zakrzewski, a tech policy reporter at the Washington Post. I’ll be at the helm of The Cybersecurity 202 these next few weeks. If you can’t get enough of Post newsletters, sign up here for my forthcoming newsletter, The Technology 202. You won’t want to miss our daily analysis on the complex relationship between Washington and Silicon Valley, coming to your inbox in December.

A broad swath of companies — including web hosting and online payment firms — are cracking down on speech that could incite violence after revelations the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre suspect broadcasted his extremist views on a site known as a sanctuary for white supremacists. 

As mainstream social networks step up policing of their platforms for hate speech, extremists — such as Squirrel Hill shooting suspect Robert Bowers — have turned toward Gab, an alternative social network that describes itself as “championing free speech.” But after the violence at the synagogue this weekend, Gab said hosting providers, including GoDaddy and Joyent, as well as payment providers PayPal and Stripe, were severing ties

The companies' moves came after reports that Bowers was broadcasting anti-Semitic views on the site, and posted on it early Saturday morning before the shooting. The actions resulted in Gab's site going dark on Sunday night. The company continues to use Twitter, where it said the site would be inaccessible as it sought a new host provider. “Gab is under attack,” the company tweeted. 

The Saturday massacre and last week’s package bombing attempts have put a fine point on the troubling trend of hateful speech and content online devolving into real-world violence. As public and political awareness of this link increases, a wider group of companies is now expected to do more to stamp out incendiary speech. 

Social networks such as Twitter and Facebook have been under pressure for years to crack down on content that incites violence, beginning with terrorist propaganda. They have faced intense regulatory scrutiny as they attempt to reach a delicate balance between stamping out hate and protecting free speech. But the decision by hosting and payment companies to break ties with Gab over the weekend underscores that combating hate speech isn’t just a social media company problem. It's a reminder that a whole ecosystem of companies can facilitate violent speech online — not just the websites where bad actors post. 

My colleagues Abby Ohlheiser and Ian Shapira reported on Gab's rise over the last year as a haven for "white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other adherents to extreme ideologies that have found themselves increasingly unwelcome on Twitter and Facebook." But, as my colleagues point out, "the platform itself is a combination of many of the sites that Gab would like to replace. The site works like a hybrid of Reddit and Twitter, where users can post character-limited messages, and respond, comment and vote other users' posts up or down. Alex Jones, who has 55,000 followers on Gab, often promotes his live broadcasts there because he has been banned from YouTube and Twitter." And of course, it's only able to function by using the same internet ecosystem as other mainstream sites. 

Gab declined their requests for an interview. 

But this isn't the first time Gab's rhetoric has come under scrutiny. My colleagues Tony Romm and Elizabeth Dwoskin previously documented how tech companies are quietly cracking down on hate speech -- when Microsoft threatened to stop hosting Gab in August. Microsoft gave Gab an ultimatum after a user posted comments threatening Jewish people with “ritual death by torture.” Gab complied. 

Microsoft ceased hosting Gab last month, a representative told Tony over the weekend.  “We reached a mutual agreement with Gab to terminate their use of Azure [Microsoft's cloud-computing service]. From our perspective, we were not comfortable with Gab’s ability to adhere to our terms of service,” the representative said. 

Gab Chief Executive Andrew Torba has deep ties to Silicon Valley's top founders as a former participant in Y Combinator, a prestigious incubator that helped launch Dropbox and Airbnb. Torba participated with a different start-up, and Y Combinator booted him from its alumni network over harassment concerns two years ago, according to TechCrunch

Technology companies faced a similar dilemma in the wake of a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville  in August 2017,  which resulted in the death of a counterprotester. In the ensuing days, both GoDaddy and Google suspended hosting services for the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website. The companies said The Daily Stormer was inciting and promoting violence after it ridiculed Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old counterprotester who was killed in the violence. 

Even Cloudflare, a cybersecurity company that sits in front of websites and prevents attacks that would take them down, resisted the role of being an Internet censor, but eventually terminated its service to the Daily Stormer. “It’s important that what we did today not set a precedent,” Cloudflare chief executive Matthew Prince said in an email to employees at the time. 

Advocates for free speech warned that the tech companies were standing on a slippery slope in their decision to remove content. 

“We must also recognize that on the Internet, any tactic used now to silence neo-Nazis will soon be used against others, including people whose opinions we agree with,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a blog post last year

Even though companies have ramped up their efforts to take down content that incites violence, missteps continue. Twitter came under fire last week for failing to remove posts that were later linked to Cesar Sayoc. On Friday, the Florida man was charged with sending homemade bombs to critics of President Trump. 

As Sayoc’s social media history has come under scrutiny, Twitter posted an apology on Friday after political commentator Rochelle Ritchie said she previously reported threats from Sayoc to the social network.  The company said it should have removed his posts. 

At the time of her report, Twitter said there was “no violation” of its terms of service.

Former Twitter product manager Josh Elman wrote that the mistake underscores the need for regulation of social media:


PINGED: “Facebook announced Friday that it had suspended 82 pages, groups and accounts that had originated in Iran for engaging in ‘coordinated inauthentic behavior’ and sharing divisive political messages, including opposition to President Trump,” The Washington Post's Tony Romm and Craig Timberg reported. “The accounts — some of which were also removed from Facebook’s photo-sharing site, Instagram — do not appear to have clear ‘ties to the Iranian government,’ Facebook said, but the company could not say for certain who was behind them. More than 1 million Facebook users followed at least one of the pages that the company removed, and tens of thousands of users had joined one of the groups that Iran-based users had created.”

Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook, said in a statement that those pages and accounts posted content about “politically charged” issues including race and immigration. “Free and fair elections are the heart of every democracy and we’re committed to doing everything we can to prevent misuse of Facebook at this critical time for our country,” Gleicher said.

“Researchers studying Facebook’s latest revelations said the Iranian accounts demonstrated a new sophistication,” Tony and Craig wrote. “They injected themselves into mainstream political debates and shared similar memes across multiple pages, much like Russia’s Internet Research Agency, which was the leading source of foreign disinformation during the 2016 election.”

"The Facebook Dilemma," a two-episode investigation by Frontline, examines the social media platform’s impact on privacy and democracy around the world. (Video: Frontline)

PATCHED: Russian online disinformation operations swarmed Ukraine years before Moscow interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but Ukrainian officials said the social network failed to address the problem, according to The Post's Dana Priest and James Jacoby and Anya Bourg, who are producers for PBS's “Frontline.” “In Ukraine, Russian information warfare was in full swing on Facebook and a Russian social media network during the revolution in 2014, government officials say,” Priest, Jacoby and Bourg reported. “There was a daily flood of fake news condemning the revolution and trying to legitimize the invasion by claiming Ukraine was an Islamic State safe haven, a hotbed for Chechen terrorists and led by Nazis.” The article published by The Post on Sunday is based on reporting for a “Frontline” documentary titled “The Facebook Dilemma” that is scheduled to air on Monday and Tuesday.

“Facebook has launched major reforms to its platform and processes since the 2016 U.S. presidential election made the company — and American users of Facebook — aware of how Russian actors were abusing it to influence politics far beyond their borders,” Priest, Jacoby and Bourg wrote. “But Ukraine’s warnings two years earlier show how the social media giant has been blind to the misuse of Facebook, in particular in places where it is hugely popular but has no on-the-ground presence. There is still no Facebook office in Ukraine.”

PWNED: “A year before federal prosecutors accused Maria Butina of operating as a secret agent for the Russian government, she was a graduate student at American University working on a sensitive project involving cybersecurity,” the Associated Press's Desmond Butler reported Monday. “Butina’s college assignment called for her to gather information on the cyberdefenses of U.S. nonprofit organizations that champion media freedom and human rights, The Associated Press has learned. It was information that could help the groups plug important vulnerabilities, but also would be of interest to the Russian government.”

Butina and other students from her team received the names of groups that partner with Internews, a nonprofit promoting access to information around the world, according to the AP. Butler reported that the students contacted some of the groups even though they were told not to do so on their own. “An individual who has worked on U.S. programs in Ukraine told the AP that after Butina’s arrest he was briefed by U.S. officials who expressed concern that two Internews programs in Ukraine — dealing with media freedom and cybersecurity, and funded by the State Department — may have been exposed to Russian intelligence and may be at risk due to Butina’s student work,” Butler wrote. However, as Butler noted, “AP found no evidence that Butina passed any information from the university project to Moscow, but the work allowed her to contact likely Russian targets.”


— Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said on “Fox News Sunday” that the government is ready to protect the midterm elections. “We are more prepared than we've ever been and we will continue to prepare, not just for this election but through every election to come in the future,” Nielsen said. She also said that DHS plans to keep watch over the election as voters head to the polls. “We'll be setting up a virtual Situation Room on Election Day so that we can very quickly support any incident response that's needed and so that we can share any information,” she said.

— “The state of California on Friday agreed not to enforce its own state net neutrality law until a final court decision on the Trump administration’s decision to overturn the 2015 Obama-era open internet rules,” Reuters's David Shepardson reported. “The move likely means the California net neutrality law, which was set to take effect on Jan. 1, now will be on hold for a year or longer. The law has been challenged by the U.S. Justice Department and trade groups representing providers including AT&T Inc, Verizon Communications Inc and Comcast Corp.”

— “A common thread is running through nearly every tech debate in Washington these days: fear that an ambitious China is poised to win the next wave of technology,” Politico's Nancy Scola reported Saturday. “The worry that China is preparing to eat America’s lunch is the subtext for nearly all policy discussions on next-generation tech like quantum computing that can break encryption, artificial intelligence that can spy on or supplant humans, and superfast wireless networks that can power an advanced digital economy. And it’s causing rattled U.S. policymakers to flirt with some of the same top-down, regimented strategies that Beijing is pursuing.”

— The city of Orlando launched a second pilot program to test's facial recognition technology, called Rekognition, after letting the first pilot expire earlier this year amid mounting scrutiny over the technology, BuzzFeed News's Davey Alba reported Friday. “To be clear, Orlando has not yet deployed a citywide facial recognition project,” Alba wrote. “It is not currently processing the faces of pedestrians by comparing them to the faces of known criminals, nor are the alerts the system sends to police officers meant to detain suspicious ‘persons of interest.’ But the city's Rekognition pilot is already testing how the technology would perform these kinds of tasks.” ( founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

According to BuzzFeed News, the introduction of Orlando's first pilot program was sometimes confusing. “Documents obtained by BuzzFeed News show the initial rollout of Orlando’s Amazon Rekognition pilot was marked by internal miscommunication that led to both the city of Orlando and Amazon Web Services — Amazon’s cloud computing arm that offers its facial recognition tools — presenting confusing and contradictory information about the pilot to the public,” Alba reported.

Nevertheless, the city decided to embark on a second attempt. “The goals of the pilot are certainly commendable, and at first glance, the facial recognition system looks straightforward,” according to BuzzFeed News. “That is, until you start digging into details like the possibility of surveillance of someone who is not a person of interest. Or looking for the sort of precautions and audits that might prevent a false positive arrest. Or for a process for citizens to appeal and get themselves removed from the person of interest list if they think police were mistaken.”

— More cybersecurity news from the public sector:

FBI to private industry: Attribution won’t deter North Korean hacking (CyberScoop)

White House Sets Deadlines for Agencies to Protect Their Digital Crown Jewels (Nextgov)

Mirai botnet hacker ordered to pay $8.6 million in damages (Reuters)


— “Microsoft executives launched a spirited defense of their work with the U.S. military on Friday in a blog post written by company president Brad Smith, who pledged to work with Pentagon as it embarks on a multibillion-dollar effort to build advanced artificial intelligence capabilities into its operations,” The Post's Aaron Gregg reported. “ founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos offered a similar statement last week at a conference in San Francisco hosted by Wired Magazine.” 

— More cybersecurity news from the private sector:

Cathay Enlists Firm Once Sued for Data Breach to Help After Hack (Bloomberg News)

Amazon Has Pulled Its Ads From Bloomberg Over China Hack Story (BuzzFeed News)


Coming soon


Pittsburgh congregation weighs security changes after synagogue shooting:

After the deadly shooting at Tree of Life synagogue, nearby Rodef Shalom is grappling with how to keep its congregation safe and remain open to its community. (Video: Zoeann Murphy, Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

How the governor's race is reenergizing Georgia voters:

The Georgia governor's race between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp is drawing voters to the polls early and in record numbers. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

“I can’t do that baby”: Obama jokes about term limits.

Former president Barack Obama on Oct. 26 joked about term limits after a rally attendee shouted “We want you back.” (Video: The Washington Post)