How YouTube can save the world

Janet Jackson's accidental breast exposure has led indirectly to earth avoiding deadly asteroids.

Will YouTube help to save humanity in the event of an asteroid impact?
Image: Getty

When Hollywood rewrites this story, it will become known as the day that Janet Jackson saved planet earth. According to company legend, YouTube was created after one of its inventors had trouble accessing a video of Jackson’s moment of “wardrobe malfunction” breast exposure during the 2004 Super Bowl. The video-sharing website’s latest achievement is to become the source of scientific data that might help us evade the next big asteroid threat.

You might remember the last big one: it exploded in the air 27 kilometres above Chelyabinsk in the Russian Urals on 15 February this year. The explosion was equivalent to the detonation of 500,000 tonnes of TNT – enough to damage buildings and injure several hundred people. Perhaps not enough to get itself a Hollywood re-enactment, though.

Fortunately, the asteroid’s passage through earth’s atmosphere made it glow far brighter than the early-morning sun, causing locals to whip out their phones and record its flight. The high incidence of insurance fraud in Russia also helped – many cars are equipped with dashboard cameras, which recorded the event.

On 6 November, a group of scientists published an analysis of these videos. They had discovered that our risk of being hit by similar asteroids is ten times higher than we thought. The researchers were able to deduce the asteroid’s mass from its flight path. It was twice as heavy as scientists’ initial estimates. We need to pay attention to the threat from orbiting objects much smaller than those we have been keeping an eye on.

Things were much easier when we only needed to worry about the larger rocks orbiting the sun. The cut-off used to be about one kilometre in diameter; we had concluded that anything smaller would most likely burn up in our atmosphere and inflict near-negligible damage. We know the orbits of all these big rocks; we don’t, however, have a clue where the millions of smaller rocks are, or whether they might hit earth at any point. The YouTube-derived data suggests that we should start to find out and is certain to inform the activities of the Nasa asteroid-tracking telescope due to come online in 2015.

Atlas (Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System) will need broad shoulders: for the foreseeable future, it will be the only means by which we can reliably detect an imminent impact with these newly threatening smaller asteroids. Existing early-warning systems watch only certain patches of the sky and aren’t great at picking out objects that are smaller than one kilometre.

Nasa has plans to put an asteroid-hunting camera called NeoCam into orbit (no launch date yet) and a group of concerned citizens is raising money to build Sentinel, a similar eye in the sky. Until either of those are deployed, it’ll be down to Atlas.

Atlas will give us a week’s warning of any asteroid likely to collide with earth with an impact equivalent to the detonation of several megatonnes of TNT. If the asteroid is bigger, we should know about it three weeks in advance.

If you think that will give us time to send swarthy heroes up to attach a nuclear bomb to the asteroid and deflect it away from its collision course, think again. There is no agency on earth with the mandate to do this – and certainly no one with the necessary equipment or expertise. So all you can expect is plenty of time to charge your phone’s battery and ensure you are the first to get the video of its arrival on to YouTube. Then you have to hope there’ll still be some scientists around to appreciate your efforts.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.