Q&A: Facebook’s CTO Is at War With Bad Content, and AI Is His Best Weapon
Mike Schroepfer explains Facebook’s AI strategy against hate speech and election interference
Facebook’s challenge is huge. Billions of pieces of content—short and long posts, images, and combinations of the two—are uploaded to the site daily from around the world. And any tiny piece of that—any phrase, image, or video—could contain so-called bad content.
In its early days, Facebook relied on simple computer filters to identify potentially problematic posts by their words, such as those containing profanity. These automatically filtered posts, as well as posts flagged by users as offensive, went to humans for adjudication.
In 2015, Facebook started using artificial intelligence to cull images that contained nudity, illegal goods, and other prohibited content; those images identified as possibly problematic were sent to humans for further review.
By 2016, more offensive photos were reported by Facebook’s AI systems than by Facebook users (and that is still the case).
In 2018, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a bold proclamation: He predicted that within five or ten years, Facebook’s AI would not only look for profanity, nudity, and other obvious violations of Facebook’s policies. The tools would also be able to spot bullying, hate speech, and other misuse of the platform, and put an immediate end to them.
Today, automated systems using algorithms developed with AI scan every piece of content between the time when a user completes a post and when it is visible to others on the site—just fractions of a second. In most cases, a violation of Facebook’s standards is clear, and the AI system automatically blocks the post. In other cases, the post goes to human reviewers for a final decision, a workforce that includes 15,000 content reviewers and another 20,000 employees focused on safety and security, operating out of more than 20 facilities around the world.
In the first quarter of this year, Facebook removed or took other action (like appending a warning label) on more than 9.6 million posts involving hate speech, 8.6 million involving child nudity or exploitation, almost 8 million posts involving the sale of drugs, 2.3 million posts involving bullying and harassment, and tens of millions of posts violating other Facebook rules.
Right now, Facebook has more than 1,000 engineers working on further developing and implementing what the company calls “integrity” tools. Using these systems to screen every post that goes up on Facebook, and doing so in milliseconds, is sucking up computing resources. Facebook chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer, who is heading up Facebook’s AI and integrity efforts, spoke with IEEE Spectrum about the team’s progress on building an AI system that detects bad content.
Since that discussion, Facebook’s policies around hate speech have come under increasing scrutiny, with particular attention on divisive posts by political figures. A group of major advertisers in June announced that they would stop advertising on the platform while reviewing the situation, and civil rights groups are putting pressure on others to follow suit until Facebook makes policy changes related to hate speech and groups that promote hate, misinformation, and conspiracies.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded with news that Facebook will widen the category of what it considers hateful content in ads. Now the company prohibits claims that people from a specific race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, caste, sexual orientation, gender identity, or immigration status are a threat to the physical safety, health, or survival of others. The policy change also aims to better protect immigrants, migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers from ads suggesting these groups are inferior or expressing contempt. Finally, Zuckerberg announced that the company will label some problematic posts by politicians and government officials as content that violates Facebook’s policies.
Schroepfer indicated that Facebook’s AI systems are designed to quickly adapt to changes in policy. “I don’t expect considerable technical changes are needed to adjust,” he told Spectrum.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
IEEE Spectrum:What are the stakes of content moderation? Is this an existential threat to Facebook? And is it critical that you deal well with the issue of election interference this year?
Schroepfer: It’s probably existential; it’s certainly massive. We are devoting a tremendous amount of our attention to it.
The idea that anyone could meddle in an election is deeply disturbing and offensive to all of us here, just as people and citizens of democracies. We don’t want to see that happen anywhere, and certainly not on our watch. So whether it’s important to the company or not, it’s important to us as people. And I feel a similar way on the content-moderation side.
There are not a lot of easy choices here. The only way to prevent people, with certainty, from posting bad things is to not let them post anything. We can take away all voice and just say, “Sorry, the Internet’s too dangerous. No one can use it.” That will certainly get rid of all hate speech online. But I don’t want to end up in that world. And there are variants of that world that various governments are trying to implement, where they get to decide what’s true or not, and you as a person don’t. I don’t want to get there either.
My hope is that we can build a set of tools that make it practical for us to do a good enough job, so that everyone is still excited about the idea that anyone can share what they want, and so that Facebook is a safe and reasonable place for people to operate in.
Spectrum: You joined Facebook in 2008, before AI was part of the company’s toolbox. When did that change? When did you begin to think that AI tools would be useful to Facebook?
Schroepfer: Ten years ago, AI wasn’t commercially practical; the technology just didn’t work very well. In 2012, there was one of those moments that a lot of people point to as the beginning of the current revolution in deep learning and AI. A computer-vision model—a neural network—was trained using what we call supervised training, and it turned out to be better than all the existing models.
Spectrum: How is that training done, and how did computer-vision models come to Facebook?
Just Broccoli? Facebook’s image analysis algorithms can tell the difference between marijuana (left) and tempura broccoli (right) better than some humans.Image: Facebook
Schroepfer: Say I take a bunch of photos and I have people look at them. If they see a photo of a cat, they put a text label that says cat; if it’s one of a dog, the text label says dog. If you build a big enough data set and feed that to the neural net, it learns how to tell the difference between cats and dogs.
Prior to 2012, it didn’t work very well. And then in 2012, there was this moment where it seemed like, “Oh wow, this technique might work.” And a few years later we were deploying that form of technology to help us detect problematic imagery.
Spectrum: Do your AI systems work equally well on all types of prohibited content?
Schroepfer: Nudity was technically easiest. I don’t need to understand language or culture to understand that this is either a naked human or not. Violence is a much more nuanced problem, so it was harder technically to get it right. And with hate speech, not only do you have to understand the language, it may be very contextual, even tied to recent events. A week before the Christchurch shooting [New Zealand, 2019], saying “I wish you were in the mosque” probably doesn’t mean anything. A week after, that might be a terrible thing to say.
Spectrum: How much progress have you made on hate speech?
Schroepfer: AI, in the first quarter of 2020, proactively detected 88.8 percent of the hate-speech content we removed, up from 80.2 percent in the previous quarter. In the first quarter of 2020, we took action on 9.6 million pieces of content for violating our hate-speech policies.
Off Label: Sometimes image analysis isn’t enough to determine whether a picture posted violates the company’s policies. In considering these candy-colored vials of marijuana, for example, the algorithms can look at any accompanying text and, if necessary, comments on the post.Image: Facebook
Spectrum: It sounds like you’ve expanded beyond tools that analyze images and are also using AI tools that analyze text.
Schroepfer: AI started off as very siloed. People worked on language, people worked on computer vision, people worked on video. We’ve put these things together—in production, not just as research—into multimodal classifiers.
[Schroepfer shows a photo of a pan of Rice Krispies treats, with text referring to it as a “potent batch”] This is a case in which you have an image, and then you have the text on the post. This looks like Rice Krispies. On its own, this image is fine. You put the text together with it in a bigger model; that can then understand what’s going on. That didn’t work five years ago.
Spectrum: Today, every post that goes up on Facebook is immediately checked by automated systems. Can you explain that process?
Bigger Picture: Identifying hate speech is often a matter of context. Either the text or the photo in this post isn’t hateful standing alone, but putting them together tells a different story.Image: Facebook
Schroepfer: You upload an image and you write some text underneath it, and the systems look at both the image and the text to try to see which, if any, policies it violates. Those decisions are based on our Community Standards. It will also look at other signals on the posts, like the comments people make.
It happens relatively instantly, though there may be times things happen after the fact. Maybe you uploaded a post that had misinformation in it, and at the time you uploaded it, we didn’t know it was misinformation. The next day we fact-check something and scan again; we may find your post and take it down. As we learn new things, we’re going to go back through and look for violations of what we now know to be a problem. Or, as people comment on your post, we might update our understanding of it. If people are saying, “That’s terrible,” or “That’s mean,” or “That looks fake,” those comments may be an interesting signal.
Spectrum: How is Facebook applying its AI tools to the problem of election interference?
Schroepfer: I would split election interference into two categories. There are times when you’re going after the content, and there are times you’re going after the behavior or the authenticity of the person.
On content, if you’re sharing misinformation, saying, “It’s super Wednesday, not super Tuesday, come vote on Wednesday,” that’s a problem whether you’re an American sitting in California or a foreign actor.
Other times, people create a series of Facebook pages pretending they’re Americans, but they’re really a foreign entity. That is a problem on its own, even if all the content they’re sharing completely meets our Community Standards. The problem there is that you have a foreign government running an information operation.
There, you need different tools. What you’re trying to do is put pieces together, to say, “Wait a second. All of these pages—Martians for Justice, Moonlings for Justice, and Venusians for Justice"—are all run by an administrator with an IP address that’s outside the United States. So they’re all connected, even though they’re pretending to not be connected. That’s a very different problem than me sitting in my office in Menlo Park [Calif.] sharing misinformation.
I’m not going to go into lots of technical detail, because this is an area of adversarial nature. The fundamental problem you’re trying to solve is that there’s one entity coordinating the activity of a bunch of things that look like they’re not all one thing. So this is a series of Instagram accounts, or a series of Facebook pages, or a series of WhatsApp accounts, and they’re pretending to be totally different things. We’re looking for signals that these things are related in some way. And we’re looking through the graph [what Facebook calls its map of relationships between users] to understand the properties of this network.
Spectrum: What cutting-edge AI tools and methods have you been working on lately?
Schroepfer: Supervised learning, with humans setting up the instruction process for the AI systems, is amazingly effective. But it has a very obvious flaw: the speed at which you can develop these things is limited by how fast you can curate the data sets. If you’re dealing in a problem domain where things change rapidly, you have to rebuild a new data set and retrain the whole thing.
Self-supervision is inspired by the way people learn, by the way kids explore the world around them. To get computers to do it themselves, we take a bunch of raw data and build a way for the computer to construct its own tests. For language, you scan a bunch of Web pages, and the computer builds a test where it takes a sentence, eliminates one of the words, and figures out how to predict what word belongs there. And because it created the test, it actually knows the answer. I can use as much raw text as I can find and store because it’s processing everything itself and doesn’t require us to sit down and build the information set. In the last two years there has been a revolution in language understanding as a result of AI self-supervised learning.
Spectrum: What else are you excited about?
Schroepfer: What we’ve been working on over the last few years is multilingual understanding. Usually, when I’m trying to figure out, say, whether something is hate speech or not I have to go through the whole process of training the model in every language. I have to do that one time for every language. When you make a post, the first thing we have to figure out is what language your post is in. “Ah, that’s Spanish. So send it to the Spanish hate-speech model.”
We’ve started to build a multilingual model—one box where you can feed in text in 40 different languages and it determines whether it’s hate speech or not. This is way more effective and easier to deploy.
To geek out for a second, just the idea that you can build a model that understands a concept in multiple languages at once is crazy cool. And it not only works for hate speech, it works for a variety of things.
When we started working on this multilingual model years ago, it performed worse than every single individual model. Now, it not only works as well as the English model, but when you get to the languages where you don’t have enough data, it’s so much better. This rapid progress is very exciting.
Spectrum:How do you move new AI tools from your research labs into operational use?
Schroepfer: Engineers trying to make the next breakthrough will often say, “Cool, I’ve got a new thing and it achieved state-of-the-art results on machine translation.” And we say, “Great. How long does it take to run in production?” They say, “Well, it takes 10 seconds for every sentence to run on a CPU.” And we say, “It’ll eat our whole data center if we deploy that.” So we take that state-of-the-art model and we make it 10 or a hundred or a thousand times more efficient, maybe at the cost of a little bit of accuracy. So it’s not as good as the state-of-the-art version, but it’s something we can actually put into our data centers and run in production.
Spectrum:What’s the role of the humans in the loop? Is it true that Facebook currently employs 35,000 moderators?
Schroepfer: Yes. Right now our goal is not to reduce that. Our goal is to do a better job catching bad content. People often think that the end state will be a fully automated system. I don’t see that world coming anytime soon.
As automated systems get more sophisticated, they take more and more of the grunt work away, freeing up the humans to work on the really gnarly stuff where you have to spend an hour researching.
We also use AI to give our human moderators power tools. Say I spot this new meme that is telling everyone to vote on Wednesday rather than Tuesday. I have a tool in front of me that says, “Find variants of that throughout the system. Find every photo with the same text, find every video that mentions this thing and kill it in one shot.” Rather than, I found this one picture, but then a bunch of other people upload that misinformation in different forms.
Another important aspect of AI is that anything I can do to prevent a person from having to look at terrible things is time well spent. Whether it’s a person employed by us as a moderator or a user of our services, looking at these things is a terrible experience. If I can build systems that take the worst of the worst, the really graphic violence, and deal with that in an automated fashion, that’s worth a lot to me.