How Google Plans to Counter ISIS Recruitment

Jun 12, 2017

Rescuing someone who is on the brink of jihadism is not as simple as showing them the horrors—beheadings, starvation, subjugation—of that heinous lifestyle. Still, Yasmin Green, head of research and development at Jigsaw, an Alphabet think tank that aims to squelch online hate and harassment, views the challenge, in typical Googler fashion, as an "access to information problem."

Green shared her wisdom at the Wired business conference in New York on Wednesday. Her session, which kicked off the event, was distinctly poignant given last weekend's terror attacks in London, the UK's third extremist-borne atrocity in just as many months. Adding to its relevancy: In the aftermath of the recent brutality, British Prime Minister Theresa May took a swipe at big tech companies, like Google (goog) and Facebook (fb), for granting the unsavory ideology of militants "the safe space it needs to breed."

Green's job involves figuring out how to use Google's core business—online ad targeting—to disrupt extremist propaganda campaigns from luring new recruits. In order to understand the process by which converts become radicalized, she visited northern Iraq to interview defectors who had trained suicide bombers of the self-identified Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, often abbreviated ISIS. During her trip, a couple of factors important to consider when devising a counter strategy became clear.

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First, timing matters. "At the time they're buying a ticket to Istanbul it is too late to intervene," Green said on stage. "We need to reach them when they're sympathetic, but not yet sold."

Second, messaging matters. Simply showing videos of decapitations will not sway the errant mind. "I kind of liken it to showing smokers on the side of a cigarette packet their lungs," she said. "I’ve been a smoker. I did not look at that. That’s not how I stopped smoking."

A more effective tactic, in Green's view, is to supply nuanced answers to would-be recruits queries. These people have valid questions about "religious legitimacy, effective governance, military prowess," she said. "Let's give them alternative answers to the questions they have that could lead them to joining."

As society grapples with these complex social issues wrought, in part, by the Internet, it's reassuring to know one of the world's biggest online businesses is seeking a solution.

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