Hearts & minds: Google-run project to tackle ISIS propaganda, target US far right

© Regis Duvignau
A pilot project launched by Google’s startup incubator and a British IT company will target potential Islamic State recruits – and also the American far right – with new software that pairs violence-related search entries with anti-extremism ads.

Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) has made extensive use of online and social media platforms to spread its vision of radical Islam or lure recruits to wage jihad in Syria and Iraq.

Now the world’s largest search engine has announced an unconventional project that aims to help counter extremists’ propaganda messages and de-radicalize those in danger of falling under their influence.

Jigsaw, a technology incubator run by Google, has teamed up with London-based startup Moonshot CVE to design technology capable of redirecting a potential Islamist browsing for IS-related words and phrases to creative anti-extremist messages or videos.

Called ‘The Redirect Method,’ the program operated in trial mode for eight weeks from January to March, according to the Christian Science Monitor. It reached over 320,000 people searching for IS-associated keywords, from the terrorist group’s slogans to the names of buildings in Islamist-held areas.

The users’ metadata was collected during the eight-week trial and was used to send them advertisements and links to anti-extremism videos. Altogether, over half a million minutes of videos were watched by the ‘targets.’

But the pilot project was not restricted to making new videos and other content. Instead, Jigsaw and Moonshot CVE have drawn upon anti-IS video content already available on YouTube.

“It’s not just we need a huge amount of investment, we need content that’s authentic and credible,” said Vidhya Ramalingam, co-founder of Moonshot CVE, which curated English language videos for the pilot program.

“We can present people who are searching with dangerous content with options, rather than serving them with a menu curated by ISIS.”

Yasmin Green, head of research at Jigsaw, was quoted by the Intercept as saying: “The branding philosophy for the entire pilot project was not to appear judgmental or be moralistic, but really to pique interest of individuals who have questions, questions that are being raised and answered by the Islamic State.”

The Jigsaw project to date includes 30 ad campaigns and 95 unique ads in English and Arabic, but the de-radicalization effort will not be limited to Islamic State.

In a second phase – set to begin later this year – Moonshot CVE and US-based company Gen Next are planning to deploy the same technology to blunt far-right messages in North America.

“The interesting thing about how they behave is they’re a little bit more brazen online these days than ISIS fan boys,” Ross Frenett, co-founder of Moonshot, told the Intercept.

“In the UK, if someone in their Facebook profile picture has a swastika and is pointing a gun at the camera, that person is committing a crime. In the US, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.”

While the project team admits that it is difficult to evaluate the qualitative results so far, it insists it could be a powerful anti-extremism tool in future.