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New Silicon Valley center will track & combat ‘cyberhate’

SILICON VALLEY — The Anti-Defamation League plans to build a state-of-the-art “command center” in Silicon Valley aimed at analyzing and combating online hate speech and harassment —  a side of technology that became more ominous with the rise of social media and took an even darker turn during the 2016 presidential election.

“As I look at the front lines against anti-Semitism and bigotry on all fronts and I look at the scene of where civil rights issues are being hashed out…it’s online. It’s really become the focus for so much of our activity,” said CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who announced the venture at the SXSW conference and festivals in Austin last month.

“To prosecute those fights today, we need to be on the front line. Silicon Valley is ground-zero for the technology industry, and it’s also the place where innovation is happening in so many areas.”

The center will use cutting-edge technology and partnerships with local stakeholders to “monitor, track, analyze and mitigate hate speech and harassment across the Internet, in support of the Jewish community and other minority groups,” according to the civil rights organization.

ADL has received seed funding from the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm led by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar. Officials with the Anti-Defamation League said they plan to open the center by the end of the year, given the ‘growth and magnitude’ of the issue.

The command center could mark a new era in the way civil rights groups incorporate technology in their fight against “cyberhate,” a trend that’s been on the rise in recent years, particularly against minority groups, journalists and women. Critics of President Donald Trump said his divisive rhetoric during the presidential election gave way to increased threats and harassment across digital platforms.

An estimated 40 percent of adult internet users have personally experienced some form of online harassment, most of it involving name-calling or personal embarrassment, according to Pew Research.

An October report by the Anti-Defamation League, which tracked anti-Semitic tweets targeting journalists who covered Trump during his candidacy, found that an estimated 2.6 million tweets with anti-Semitic language were sent out between August 2015 and July 2016 — a trend that emerged during the presidential campaign in “unprecedented” numbers, according to the ADL.

At least 800 journalists received anti-Semitic tweets during that period and the top 10 most targeted journalists — all of whom were Jewish — received 83 percent of those tweets, according to the report.

The ADL, headquartered in New York City, is among dozens of Jewish institutions nationwide that have received bomb threats this year. The group will build on its three decades of experience tracking and analyzing cyberhate to take its leadership to new levels.

Greenblatt said the organization is in the midst of finding a location for the center and in determining staff size. He declined to disclose a cost for the project.

Brittan Heller, a former Department of Justice employee whose career spans law, technology and human rights, will spearhead the center. Heller, who’s based in Silicon Valley, was hired as ADL’s first director of technology and society last fall.

“I hope the research that we do highlights for people the power of their individual voices,” she said of the project.

The Omidyar network declined to disclose how much it’s providing in seed funding but said the investment is a “six-figure grant.”

“Online hate and intimidation and fear prevent people from having a voice,” said Stacy Donohue, an investment partner at the firm. “ It’s very important for us to do everything we can to create opportunities for everyone to have a voice in society and in particular, marginalized groups.”

Madihha Ahussain, a staff attorney at the Oakland-based organization, Muslim Advocates, said the project is an important initiative.

“The Muslim community has been targeted by a variety of violent incidents, including regular harassment and more egregious incidents as well. But there’s an element that is happening online,” she said. “What I think is important to realize is that this is targeting many communities, not just one community.”

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