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Antisemitism webinar banned by a bot

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A recent webinar on antisemitism hosted by the SA Jewish Report was banned by YouTube as “hate speech”. Attempts to rectify this situation soon revealed that the footage of the event had fallen victim to artificial-intelligence (AI) algorithms that are used to monitor content on the social-media platform.

“The technology is astounding, but of course, these aren’t sentient beings who are looking at the content,” says Howard Sackstein, the chairperson of the SA Jewish Report. “Artificial algorithms check through the literally millions of hours of footage that are loaded up onto YouTube all the time because there is too much content for humans to actually watch.”

Surveys posit that more than 500 hours of new footage is uploaded every minute on YouTube, creating a daily tally of more than 720 000 hours. While there are tens of thousands of people trained to monitor the findings of the AI systems, the interface between these processes isn’t always smooth.

The AI system uses image recognition and voice-to text conversion to search for various markers that contravene YouTube’s code of conduct.

“The machine hears ‘Jews’, sees ‘swastikas’, and then determines this is antisemitic, and we end up banned for hate speech,” says Sackstein of this ironic twist of fate.

According to its advertisement, the seminar, titled, “Antisemitism: mutations of the eternal virus” dealt with how “in each generation, [racist antisemitism] mutates and changes to fit the politically acceptable nuance of the day” and included discussion of how “the recent Gaza conflict and the ubiquity of social media has unmasked an explosion of antisemitic hate in South Africa”.

The panel included international professor in Jewish history and thought, Henry Abramson; Professor Adam Mendelsohn, the director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies & Research and associate professor of history at the University of Cape Town; as well as Professor Karen Milner, the Gauteng chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), and Wendy Kahn, the national director of the SAJBD.

In preparation for the webinar, which took place on 11 July, Sackstein cut together a trailer using a montage of historical and contemporary footage. “It had images of Adolf Hitler; Eugene Terre’Blanche; attacks on Jews in France; people being arrested in London for antisemitism; pictures of supporters of the campaign to stop antisemitism called ‘the story must end’. It ended with a visual of a female Holocaust survivor with a tattoo, against an Israeli flag. Every single image was publicly available and taken from YouTube.”

The webinar then went ahead on a number of platforms, including YouTube, Zoom, and Facebook. Shortly afterwards, Sackstein received a warning that the trailer and webinar had been removed from YouTube for hate speech with details about how to appeal.

Sackstein immediately appealed, explaining that the webinar was about “countering racism and antisemitism, not promoting it” Within a few hours, he was informed that his appeal was rejected, and that no further appeals were allowed.

When he contacted Google South Africa, it too struggled to make contact with an American counterpart that could rectify the situation. However, they have since met Sackstein, and unbanned the content. They were “enormously apologetic” about the occurrence.

Sackstein said that even before the webinar, Abramson warned that one of his previous talks had been banned by YouTube for the same reason.

In the aftermath of the webinar’s banning, Kahn said that the SAJBD had experienced a similar situation in 2018, when the SAJBD posted on Facebook about criminal charges it had laid against Matome Letsoalo (later convicted in court on a charge of crimen injuria for his antisemitic tweets).

“In the post, we shared his tweet which included a swastika. Our SAJBD Facebook page as well as all our personal Facebook pages were closed. It took days to convince Facebook that we weren’t ardent neo-Nazis propagating hate.”

Like Sackstein, she noted that it was “a difficult process to overturn these situations”. Eventually, overseas counterparts who interacted directly with the social-media companies were able to intercede on their behalf.

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