Want to join ISIS? Google it!
So, let’s say that you are interested in becoming an ISIS terrorist. What are you going to do? Probably Google it, like you would in any other situation.
The Redirect Method
Over the last year Jigsaw, an Alphabet subsidiary, has developed the Redirect Method in order to discourage potential jihadists of joining the extremist group ISIS. (Wired) This new program identifies these potential recruits based on their use of certain keywords and online activity on Google Search as determined by Jigsaw. Alongside the results of the search, the Redirect Method will place advertisements that link to YouTube channels containing videos Jigsaw believes might change their minds.
Yasmin Green, head of research and development at Jigsaw, explains that there is a lot of online demand for ISIS material. Social media have made it a lot easier for terrorist groups to spread their propaganda and recruit people all over the world. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube blocked and removed thousands of accounts and content in order to fight this digital war. However google can’t just remove all ISIS material from their search results. Jigsaw’s method makes use of real, paid advertisements, which allows Google to fight this battle in a different way. (BusinessInsider)
After Green interviewed people who fell for ISIS online recruitment, she realized one of the crucial aspects of these advertisements is that they should look authentic and credible. Otherwise people probably wouldn’t bother to click on the advertisements and watch the videos. The most effective way to do this according to Jigsaw is to use pre-existing videos of imams, ISIS defectors or people who are living in the caliphate/occupied areas.
It’s of course hard to conclude if this project actually changed people’s mind about joining ISIS. However it is possible to collect data on the online activity of the individuals who are searching for the keywords, and determine if they were redirected to the anti-ISIS material. According to Green, during the 8 week pilot program 320,000 individuals clicked on the advertisements, and collectively watched over 500,000 minutes of videos. (The Intercept)
The Next Phase
After these promising results, Jigsaw is now collaborating with Moonshot CVE to target other violent extremists. The new target audience, violent right-wing American extremists, is a lot more visible online, because openly expressing far-right ideology and beliefs isn’t illegal in the United States. During an event about ‘Disrupting ISIS Recruiting Online’, hosted by The Brookings Institution, Ross Frenett, co-founder of Moonshot, explains that the gathering of behavior change evidence is going to be an important part of the process. After working with (former) extremists, they realized that ideology is not always the biggest or only part of extremism. Issues around mental health, social belonging and employment are usually also of great importance.
The Redirect Method could raise some questions and concerns about privacy and big data, because of its association with Google. In this particular case of trying to prevent terrorism or extreme violence, it may not seem such a big problem. After all, data analysis is already employed in the name of prevention in many contexts. The implications of targeting someone as a potential threat to society, however, are hard to predict. If it is possible to predict who may commit a future crime, it is likely that preventing this from happening isn’t enough and the individual involved should receive some form of punishment. (Mayer-Schönberger, Cukier 159/160) It is important to acknowledge that searching for information, isn’t the same thing as acting on it. The fact that you will be identified as a potential terrorist or extremist after searching for sensitive information online, could have serious consequences (Read this article about a wrongfully accused family).
Besides these privacy concerns about being identified as a certain target, the online advertising campaign brings along its own issues. Larry Page once said that “the perfect search engine understands exactly what you mean, and gives you back exactly what you want.”(Google) If that’s true, should a search engine even be involved in offering counter information? Google isn’t working on this project as a charity, even the Redirect Method uses paid target advertising. The next phase of the Redirect Method, which also includes other social issues that might lead to extremism, could attract companies willing to advertise for their own profit. For example, if keywords relating to mental health or depression are linked to the target audience, companies who produce antidepressants could ‘redirect’ this group with their advertisements. Google is trying to make online advertising as relevant as search results (Stallworth 470), and we should make sure it’s not turning the other way around. Time will tell the true intentions and effects of the collaboration between a program created to redirect people to counter information, and a search engine that wants to sell online advertising space that is perfectly tailored to your needs.
Brookings Institution. “Disrupting ISIS recruitment online.” Youtube. 12 September 2016. 15 September 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGdU0LAVWWc>.
D’Onfro, Jillian. “The subtle way Google plans to use its greatest skill to combat ISIS” 11 September 2016. <http://www.businessinsider.com/jigsaw-redirect-method-to-stop-isis-recruits-2016-9?IR=T>.
“Experiencing the Caliphate”. Youtube. 15 January 2016. 15 September 2016. <https://youtu.be/hYEU9ADKINY?list=PL0I4bTGBHIMdNkDFO61NF6OjCL_Gld6Va>.
Greenberg, Andy. “Google’s Clever Plan to Stop Aspiring ISIS Recruits“ 9 July 2016. <https://www.wired.com/2016/09/googles-clever-plan-stop-aspiring-isis-recruits/>.
LaChance, Naomi. “Google Program to Deradicalize Jihadis Will Be Used for Right-Wing American Extremists Next” 8 September 2016. <https://theintercept.com/2016/09/07/google-program-to-deradicalize-jihadis-will-be-used-for-right-wing-american-extremists-next/>.
Mayer-Schönbergerm, Viktor, and Kenneth Cukier. Big Data: A Revolution that Will Transform how We Live, Work, and Think. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
Stallworth, Brian. “Future Imperfect: Googling for Principles in Online Behavioral Advertising.” Federal Communications Law Journal 62.2 (April 2010): 465-492.