Google’s Clever Plan to Stop Aspiring ISIS Recruits

By Sofia Grafanaki

A new and promising approach seeks to disrupt ISIS online recruiting efforts through targeted advertising, as presented at a recent event at the Brookings Institution. Google’s tech incubator Jigsaw (previously called Google Ideas), together with Moonshot CVE, Quantum Communications, and the Gen Next Foundation, developed a plan to help the fight against terrorism. The “Redirect Method” is described as a way to get inside the heads of potential terrorists before they are actually recruited and change their intentions.

The way the program seems to work, is that it “places advertising alongside results for any keywords and phrases that Jigsaw has determined people attracted to ISIS commonly search for”. The advertising links to YouTube channels with videos that Jigsaw believes can “undo ISIS’s brainwashing”. According to Yasmin Green, Jigsaw’s head of research and development, “the Redirect Method is at its heart a targeted advertising campaign: Let’s take these individuals who are vulnerable to ISIS’ recruitment messaging and instead show them information that refutes it.” Results seem to show that the program is effective – it seems that more than 300,000 people were drawn to the anti-ISIS YouTube channels in just about 2 months.

But could this “powerful tool for getting inside the minds of some of the least understood and most dangerous people on the Internet”, as described by Wired Magazine, be used for just about anything else as well? There is no doubt that the specific use is desirable (and a lot more respective of privacy than NSA’s bulk surveillance method). But once it’s out there as a tool, can it not be used for other causes? If it’s really just a targeted advertising campaign, can Google develop a product out of this? Or is it already a product in some ways? How would we feel if the cause was not to stop terrorism but to stop a political candidate for instance that some deem dangerous? The minute we move away from extremism, the idea of using data and analytics to get inside the minds of people and change their intentions starts to sound much less appealing.