An Algorithm with Unintended Consequences

September 12, 2017

Some of us who follow developments in AI wondered about this: apparently, the algorithm YouTube tasked with eliminating “extremist content” on its platform goes too far. Business Insider reports, “YouTube’s Crackdown on Extremist Content and ISIS Is Also Hurting Researchers and Journalists.”  It is a good thing there now exist commercial services that can meet the needs of analysts, researchers, and government officials; many of these services are listed in Stephen E Arnold’s Dark Web Notebook.

In this case, the problem is an algorithm that cannot always distinguish between terrorist propaganda and terrorist coverage. Since the site implemented its new steps to combat terrorist content, several legitimate researchers and journalists have protested that their content was caught in the algorithm’s proverbial net and summarily removed; some of it had been available on the site for years. Reporter Rob Price writes

Open-source researcher Eliot Higgins says he has had his old videos about Syria deleted and his account was suspended as the Google-owned video platform attempts to tackle material that supports terrorism. Middle East Eye reports that Syrian opposition news site Orient News was also deleted, as was a video uploaded by one of the publication’s own journalists. ‘YouTube has now suspended my account because of videos of Syria I uploaded 2-3 years ago. Nice anti-ISIS AI you’ve got there, YouTube,’ Higgins tweeted on Saturday. ‘Ironically, by deleting years-old opposition channels YouTube is doing more damage to Syrian history than ISIS could ever hope to achieve.’ In another incident, a video from American journalist Alexa O’Brien’s video that was used in Chelsea Manning’s trial was deleted, according to Middle East Eye.

Higgins, whose account has since been reinstated, has an excellent point—ultimately, tools that destroy important documentation along with propaganda are counter-productive. Yes, algorithms are faster (and cheaper) than human workers. But do we really want to sacrifice first-hand footage of crucial events for the sake of speedy sanitization? There must be a better way.

Cynthia Murrell, September 12, 2017

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