“Perhaps one of world’s most dangerous problems of ignorance and indoctrination can be solved in part by doing what Google does best:
Helping people find what they most need to see.
Google has built a half-trillion-dollar business out of divining what people want based on a few words they type into a search field. In the process, it’s stumbled on a powerful tool for getting inside the minds of some of the least understood and most dangerous people on the Internet: potential ISIS recruits. Now one subsidiary of Google is trying not just to understand those would-be jihadis’ intentions, but to change them.
Jigsaw, the Google-owned tech incubator and think tank—until recently known as Google Ideas—has been working over the past year to develop a new program it hopes can use a combination of Google’s search advertising algorithms and YouTube’s video platform to target aspiring ISIS recruits and ultimately dissuade them from joining the group’s cult of apocalyptic violence. The program, which Jigsaw calls the Redirect Method and plans to launch in a new phase this month, places advertising alongside results for any keywords and phrases that Jigsaw has determined people attracted to ISIS commonly search for. Those ads link to Arabic- and English-language YouTube channels that pull together preexisting videos Jigsaw believes can effectively undo ISIS’s brainwashing—clips like testimonials from former extremists, imams denouncing ISIS’s corruption of Islam, and surreptitiously filmed clips inside the group’s dysfunctional caliphate in Northern Syria and Iraq.
“This came out of an observation that there’s a lot of online demand for ISIS material, but there are also a lot of credible organic voices online debunking their narratives,” says Yasmin Green, Jigsaw’s head of research and development. “The Redirect Method is at its heart a targeted advertising campaign: Let’s take these individuals who are vulnerable to ISIS’ recruitment messaging and instead show them information that refutes it.”
The results, in a pilot project Jigsaw ran early this year, were surprisingly effective: Over the course of about two months, more than 300,000 people were drawn to the anti-ISIS YouTube channels. Searchers actually clicked on Jigsaw’s three or four times more often than a typical ad campaign. Those who clicked spent more than twice as long viewing the most effective playlists than the best estimates of how long people view YouTube as a whole. And this month, along with the London-based startup Moonshot Countering Violent Extremism and the US-based Gen Next Foundation, Jigsaw plans to relaunch the program in a second phase that will focus its method on North American extremists, applying the method to both potential ISIS recruits and violent white supremacists.
An Antidote to Extremism’s Infection
While tech firms have been struggling for years to find countermeasures to extremist content, ISIS’ digital propaganda machine has set a new standard for aggressive online recruitment. Twitter has banned hundreds of thousands of accounts only to see them arise again—manymigrating to the more private service Telegram—while other services like YouTube and Facebook have fought an endless war of content removal to keep the group’s vile beheading and immolation videos offline. But attempts to intercept the disaffected young Muslims attracted to that propaganda and offer them a counternarrative—actual protection against the group’s siren song—have mostly amounted to public service announcements. Those PSA series have included the U.S. State Department’s campaign called Think Again, Turn Away and the blunt messaging of the cartoon series Average Mohammed.
Those campaigns are likely only effective for dissuading the audience least indoctrinated by ISIS’s messages, argues Green, who’s interviewed jailed ISIS recruits in Britain and defectors in an Iraqi prison. “Further down the funnel are the people who are sympathetic, maybe ideologically committed, maybe even already in the caliphate,” says Green. “That’s Jigsaw’s focus.”
To capture the people already drawn into ISIS’ orbit, Jigsaw took a less direct approach. Rather than create anti-ISIS messages, the team curates them from YouTube. “We thought, what if the content exists already?” says Green. “We knew if it wasn’t created explicitly for this purpose, it would be more authentic and therefore more compelling.”
Testing the Theory
Jigsaw and two partners on the pilot project, Moonshot CVE and the Lebanese firm Quantum Communications, assembled two playlists of videos they found in both Arabic and English, ranging from moderate Muslim clerics pointing out ISIS’s hypocrisy to footage of long food lines in the ISIS’s Syrian stronghold Raqqa.
Another video in Jigsaw’s playlist shows an elderly woman excoriating members of ISIS and quoting the Koran to them:
Jigsaw chose more than 1,700 keywords that triggered ads leading to their anti-ISIS playlists. Green and her team focused on terms they believed the most committed ISIS recruits would search for: names of waypoints on travel routes to ISIS territory, phrases like “Fatwa [edict] for jihad in Syria” and names of extremist leaders who had preached ISIS recruitment. The actual text of the search ads, however, took a light-touch approach, with phrases like “Is ISIS Legitimate?” or “Want to Join ISIS?” rather than explicit anti-ISIS messages.
Measuring the actual effects of the campaign in dissuading ISIS recruits isn’t easy. But Jigsaw and its partners found that they at least captured searchers’ attention. The clickthrough rates on some of the ads were more than 9 percent, they say, compared with averages around 2 or 3 percent in the average Google keyword advertising campaign. They also discovered that the hundreds of thousands of searchers spent a total of half a million minutes watching the videos they collected, with the most effective videos getting as much as 8 minutes and 20 seconds average viewing time.
But Could It Work?
Jigsaw’s program is far from a comprehensive solution to ISIS’s online recruitment, says Humera Khan, the executive director of the Islamic deradicalization group Muflehun. She points out that both Google and Facebook have trained anti-extremism non-profits in the past on how to use their keyword advertising, though perhaps without the deep involvement in targeting, curating and promoting video Jigsaw is trying. More importantly, she argues, attracting ISIS sympathizers to a video playlist is only the first step. “If they can hook people in, can they keep them coming back with new and relevant content? That’ll be important,” says Khan. Eventually, any successful deradicalization effort also needs human interaction, too, and a supportive community backing up the person’s decision to turn away from extremism. “This sounds like a good piece of the solution. But it’s not all of it.”
From a national security perspective, Jigsaw’s work raises another glaring question: Why not target would-be ISIS recruits for surveillance and even arrest instead? After all, intercepting ISIS sympathizers could not only rescue those recruits themselves, but the future victims of their violence in terrorist attacks or genocidal massacres in ISIS’s bloody sphere of influence. On that question, Jigsaw’s Green answers carefully that “social media platforms including YouTube have a responsibility to cooperate [with] the governments’ lawful requests, and there are processes in place to do that.” Translation? Google likely already helps get some of these people arrested. The company, after all, handed over some data in 64 percent of the more than 40,000 government requests for its users’ data in the second half of last year.
But Green says that the Redirect Method, beyond guiding ISIS admirers to its videos, doesn’t seek to track them further or identify them, and isn’t designed to lead to arrests or surveillance, so much as education. “These are people making decisions based on partial, bad information,” says Green. “We can affect the problem of foreign fighters joining the Islamic State by arming individuals with more and better information.” She describes the campaign’s work as a kind of extension of Google’s core mission “to make the world’s information accessible and useful.”