Not all weapons have a trigger, but that doesn’t make them any less effective. No, we’re not talking about bombs, but rather about Google’s new strategy to use its highly targeted advertising system in the battle against the Islamic State (IS). Anthony House, the senior manager for public policy and communications at Google, revealed plans to show users anti-radicalization links in response to terrorism-related searches back in February, and now, the program has grown ever more robust.
For the last year, Jigsaw, a tech incubator and think tank under Google’s wing, has been hard at work on a program known as the Redirect Method. Its goal is to combine Google’s search advertising algorithms and YouTube’s video platform to blast IS recruits with targeted ads, discouraging them for joining the extremist group.
In essence, ads that link to anti-IS videos are placed in Google results that Jigsaw believes are often accessed by potential terrorism recruits. These videos include content like negative experiences from ex-extremists and imams accusing IS of bastardizing Islam.
Earlier in 2016, Jigsaw ran a pilot program to test the Redirect Method, and found that of the 300,000 people who ultimately landed on anti-IS YouTube channels, “Searchers actually clicked on Jigsaw’s three or four times more often than a typical ad campaign,” as Wired reports. “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.”
So now, Jigsaw has plans to test the program again in North America, and it will target not only potential IS recruits, but white supremacists as well.
“This came out of an observation that there’s a lot of online demand for IS material, but there are also a lot of credible organic voices online debunking their narratives,” Yasmin Green, Jigsaw’s head of research and development, told Wired. “The Redirect Method is at its heart a targeted advertising campaign: Let’s take these individuals who are vulnerable to [this] recruitment messaging and instead show them information that refutes it.”
Officials are hopeful that this new plan may provide a clever tool that protects the freedom of the internet while also protecting the livelihoods of the world’s citizens. “We should get the bad stuff down, but it’s also extremely important that people are able to find good information, that when people are feeling isolated, that when they go online, they find a community of hope, not a community of harm,” said House earlier this year.
The Redirect Method helps to provide a sort of alternative narrative to those looking for information about extremism. In a statement, a Google spokesperson further explained, “What was referenced is a pilot Google AdWords Grants program that’s in the works right now with a handful of eligible non-profit organizations. The program enables NGOs to place counter-radicalization ads against search queries of their choosing.”
In addition to the counter-terrorism ads, Google is also ensuring that its subsidiary YouTube makes anti-extremism videos more discoverable, further aiding the overall efforts against IS and similar groups.
The move comes in the midst of an ongoing debate about the role and responsibility that social media groups should accept in responding to the proliferation of extremism. IS is known for leveraging sites like Twitter and Facebook for both recruitment and propaganda purposes, and a recent lawsuit against Twitter suggested that IS has only reached its current level of influence with the (albeit unintentional) help of social media platforms.
And while Google ads may not be a comprehensive solution, it will certainly help when it comes to educating those who might otherwise be interested in joining ISIS or other extremist groups. “These are people making decisions based on partial, bad information,” Green said. “We can affect the problem of foreign fighters joining the Islamic State by arming individuals with more and better information.”