The internet is one of the most valuable tools for the Islamic State to spread its vision of radical Islam and lure recruits to the battlefields in Iraq and Syria. But the world's most powerful search engine is taking steps that could soon blunt the group's online propaganda machine.
Jigsaw, the advanced research outfit created by Google, has developed a technology that would redirect anyone searching terms and phrases associated with supporting the Islamic State (known as IS or ISIS) to instead see antiextremist messages and videos.
Google doesn't plan to integrate the effort into its searches on its own – hoping instead to inspire groups fighting IS to implement the method themselves. But during an eight-week trial from January to March, the campaign reached more than 320,000 people who searched for one of more than 1,000 Islamic State-related keywords – from the names of buildings in militant-controlled provinces to its slogans.
The effort dubbed the “Redirect Method” placed Islamic State-related search results next to ads that include links to videos denouncing the terrorist groups and its tactics from leading Muslim clerics.
But the effort didn't follow the usual playbook of creating new videos and messages. Instead, Jigsaw and the other groups that directed the program drew upon material already available on YouTube to counteract IS's message.
"It’s not just we need a huge amount of investment, we need content that’s authentic and credible," says Vidhya Ramalingam, cofounder of Moonshot CVE, a London firm focused on countering extremism 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.”
So far, the Jigsaw project included 30 ad campaigns and 95 unique ads in English and Arabic and will continue in a second phase set to begin later this year, led by Moonshot CVE and the US-based company Gen Next that will focus on countering extremist messages in North America.
The pilot program comes as counterterrorism officials have struggled to diminish Islamic State's online presence, which includes 36 regional media producers who create personalized content for audiences around the world, thousands of Twitter accounts and sophisticated social media campaigns.
The effort led by Jigsaw, now a division of Alphabet, Google's parent company, follows other initiatives to counter extremist messages on the web. The State Department promoted a series of antextremist videos on YouTube in December 2013 called "Think Again, Turn Away" to combat Islamic militancy. In the past six months, Twitter has suspended 235,000 accounts that allegedly promoted extremist causes.
In January, the White House also called on tech companies including Facebook, LinkedIn, Dropbox, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube to take greater action in fighting back against Islamic extremist groups. In Britain, police have set up referral units giving law enforcement officials the chance to flag extremist social media content for removal.
But for Emma Llanso, director of the free expression project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, those efforts amount to "a game of whack-a-mole that’s ultimately not going to be that effective."
"What you want to do," she adds, "is try to connect people who are looking for information about ISIS to provide alternate views."
The Redirect Method draws upon Google's AdWords software, which allows advertisers using the search engine to bid against each other to place their content next to search results. Because AdWords is readily available, Jigsaw hopes that community groups and antiextremist organizations could use the method to direct would-be IS supporters to videos denouncing terrorism.
What's more, the campaign appears to demonstrate that AdWords can be an effective tool in the arsenal of digital advocates aiming to combat extremism. Keywords typed by users mirrored content that actually appeared on the playlists – so users that searched for one of IS’s top media agencies such as "Furqan Media Agency" or “Fatwa for jihad in Syria" were directed to videos available on YouTube that contradicted those messages.
While supporters of the campaign concede that it’s difficult to assess the results so far, they say it could be a powerful weapon in the future.
"When a 19-year-old woman living in poverty tells you that ISIS fighters should go back to god, there’s no agenda," says Yasmin Green, Jigsaw’s head of research. "There’s no reason to question her ability or motives. That’s the really powerful content online that we need to make sure they’re seeing."