The Software Agents: Episode 15 - Fighting Online Hate with an Internet Scale Open Platform

Written by: Christina Noren
4 min read
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The Software Agents is a podcast series sponsored by CloudBees. Each week, we bring you a leader reinventing a different field through software for the new world that is being born. Listen to this week's episode.

Our Software Agent this week is Dave Sifry, vice president for technology and society at the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL is a leading organization that has been fighting anti-Semitism since 1913 and works with other anti-hate groups.

Dave is one of the people who inspired The Software Agents podcast in the first place, so we couldn’t have been more thrilled to finally have him on the show. 

My producer Paul Boutin and I both have known Dave forever. Dave was a co-founder of several seminal 90's and early 2000's OSS and Internet companies, including VA Linux and the blog search engine Technorati (I miss Technorati every day!) We all swam in the same sea of wide-eyed innovation and marveled at the power of technology to improve the world. 

At the first dinner for Benetech supporters that I attended in maybe 2013, founded by fellow Software Agent Jim Fruchterman, I ran into Dave who was sitting across the table with his thousand-watt smile and sly grin. A few years later, I had the good fortune to have Dave as a VP Engineering colleague when I was CPO at Interana. There, he showed me the power of implementing continuous integration and other modern DevOps practices. This was a big part of why CloudBees’ mission resonated with me. Dave went on to Lyft, and I went on to CloudBees.

Just over a year ago, Dave called to catch me up. He was so excited about his new role leading technology for the ADL! He was vague in that first call, but clear that it was about using technology to fuel the fight against online hate. I knew this was a very personal mission for him—his beloved mother was a Holocaust survivor. My own parents had their own different but shocking experiences of the war in Europe, so I was thrilled that Dave was working to prevent anything like it again.

What Dave and his team are building turns out to be an order of magnitude more exciting, both from societal and technical perspectives, than I could have imagined: an Internet-scale platform that ingests the entire public feeds of every major social media network, mines them to train AIs to recognize what is and is not hate speech (human language is tricky with all of its irony and negatives, double negatives, etc.), and produces actionable information on what is trending, where it’s coming from and how it may be interconnected. As 2020 unfurled, their mission has only gained importance.

Even better, ADL’s technology is being built as an open platform, operated on behalf of the world by the ADL so that it works across all social media giants, but is beholden to none of them.  

As Dave says in the podcast, the ADL arguably has the experts to train AIs to recognize anti-Semitic speech. But the NAACP, GLAAD, and other organizations are likely best to maintain the AIs for other forms of hate. I can see how this becomes a fundamental service for the future Internet  - as fundamental as DNS. I have a naive optimism that we can socially, and technically, engineer our way to our shared early optimism once again. The ADL’s initiative here feeds that optimism.

Dave, as the experienced technology leader he is, is not building this as a quick and dirty one-off "let’s scan the Internet” hacker project either. He’s also been building the team, culture, process, automation and infrastructure to sustain high-performing innovation and service operation for years to come. He tells us a little about that as well, which is, to me, a playbook for anyone wanting to build a new software service with the best modern software delivery practices. We should probably get him or one of his leads to dive even further into that on DevOps Radio sometime!

One last thing - the ADL is a non-profit. If you want to support this work, you can always donate here. I can’t think of a better way to give back for all of us who have been fortunate enough to work in the software industry, so that the things we build can be guided to bring the world together rather than tear it apart.

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