White House summons tech, social media firms after shootings

The White House has called on social media companies to build technologies that could help curb the spread of violent ideologies online

The appeal was made during a meeting between officials from the White House and big social media companies on Friday.

The gathering came days after Donald Trump, the United States, laid blame on the internet and social media for providing places to “to radicalise disturbed minds”. His comments were triggered by two deadly mass shootings in the cities of El Paso in Texas and Dayton in Ohio last weekend.

At least 31 people were killed in the back-to-back attacks.

In a statement, the White House said representatives at the meeting spoke “on how technology can be leveraged to identify potential threats, to provide help to individuals exhibiting potentially violent behaviour and to combat domestic terror”.

It added: “We urge internet and social media companies to continue their efforts in addressing violent extremism and helping individuals at risk, and to do so without compromising free speech.” 

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The White House declined to comment on who took part or led Friday’s closed-door meeting. Trump did not attend.

The Washington Post said Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit were invited to meeting. The companies declined comment.

Their lobby group, the Internet Association, said the meeting was productive and that the companies talked about how they fight “extremism” online.

The companies “detailed their extensive efforts using automated tools and human review to find and prevent the spread of hateful, violent, and extremist content on their platforms,” said Michael Beckerman, chief executive of the Internet Association.

Investigators believe the suspected shooter in the El Paso attack posted a hate-filled “manifesto” on the online messaging board 8chan before he opened fire on shoppers at a Walmart store in the city. 

In the document, the author railed against an alleged “Hispanic invasion of Texas”, echoing comments by Trump in which the president described migrants trying to enter the US through its southern border as “an invasion”.

The president’s political opponents, civil society groups and residents of El Paso said his words were partly to blame for the mass shootings.

Trump has denied stoking division and violence, contending this week that he “brings people together. Our country is doing incredibly well”.

The House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee this week called the owner of 8chan, an American who lives in the Philippines, to testify about the site’s efforts to tackle “extremist content”.

Heidi Beirich, who leads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, said tech companies have made significant changes in the way they tackle hate speech over the last few years.

“Since the Charlottesville riots in 2017, most of the tech companies have moved towards taking hateful material off their platforms,” Beirich told Al Jazeera, referring to violence following a white supremacist rally in the US city of Charlottesville in August 2017.

“The pace has been slow and a bit hamhanded at times, but at this point there is no more argument from them to keep this material up,” she added.

According to Beirich, YouTube and Twitter have struggled the most with combating “extremist content”.

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