What should tech companies like Google and Facebook do about terrorists and hate groups that flock to their platforms to search for like-minded individuals and disseminate propaganda?
While one may instinctually say banish them, Vidhya Ramalingam, the founder of Moonshot CVE, a startup that works with such tech companies as well as governments, advocates for a different approach: engagement.
“Unless we grant them opportunity to change, we’re doomed,” said Ramalingam speaking at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women International Summit in London Tuesday morning.
Ramalingam, an Indian-American who grew up in a predominantly white part of America, settled on this philosophy and founded Moonshot after years of studying white nationalist groups in Sweden as well as other hate groups. Jigsaw, Google’s tech incubator, approached her startup a couple years ago, “wanting to start an open conversation about how they might deal with the fact that terrorists” made use of their search engine.
Ramalingam added that “the answer was very simple,” in terms of how to respond to this predicament: advertising, or targeting people who were searching for information about joining or getting involved in hate groups with content that could help change their minds.
She said there is, surprisingly, a lot of this anti-extremist counter-programming already out there, both in terms of resources developed by community organizations as well as videos created by individuals: “They just don’t get put in front of the people who most need them.”
Moonshot accordingly curates and redirects this content, by running it as advertising against search terms like “how to join the KKK” and “how to join ISIS.” This way, said Ramalingam, that content can reach the most vulnerable individuals.
Ramalingam, who considers her company to operate in the realm of digital social work, has identified commonalities between the individuals that tend to seek out and fall into hate groups. Most often, she said, they are people who feel alienated and who are searching for purpose, community or a sense of empowerment.
And, what makes her hopeful and a believer in Moonshot’s mission, is the fact that they are all, of course, “human.”