Google has developed a program it hopes will use a combination of search advertising algorithms and targeted YouTube videos to dissuade would-be recruits from traveling to Syria to join Islamic State (IS, also called ISIS or ISIL).
The project was created by Google’s in-house tech incubator, Jigsaw (formerly Google Ideas). Called “Redirect Method”, when search terms that Google predicts someone who might be curious about joining IS are used, text links to anti-IS YouTube videos will display. The keywords include “Fatwa for jihad in Syria” and places used for entry into IS-controlled Syria. When used, links with subtle messages like “Want to join ISIS?” will display. (Though maybe it should consider “one weird trick”.)
This information operation uses the same basic dilution method as the organically crowd-sourced ISIS-chan meme. By adding more anti-IS content to search results, the likelihood of legitimate IS propaganda displaying is reduced. The Google campaign goes a step further by curating a playlist of authentic anti-IS videos already uploaded to YouTube such as “Raqqa under ISIS food lines”. This is in contrast to government information operations like the State Department’s failed “Think Again, Turn Away” campaign that created their own (bad) content, or France’s “How to Spot a Jihadist” infographic.
Unlike ISIS-chan, this information operation could have the potential to legitimately deter recruitment. Google claims that their anti-IS ad clickthrough rates are around nine per cent, much higher than the two to three per cent in a typical Google AdWords campaign. Additionally, people seem to be actually watching the videos, with their best performing videos getting an average of eight minutes. That is a longer time than I spend on most videos I actually want to watch.
As we have seen, most IS recruits are ignorant of Islam. It makes sense that these would-be recruits are legitimately interested in what life in IS-controlled territory is like.
While this program is encouraging, it does make me question Google’s ultimate aim here. Are they altruistically investing time and money into counterterrorism, or will this information be used to change people’s minds about other things? It is a new development in the ongoing search neutrality debate. It would be difficult to oppose Google manipulating their results to combat terrorism, but it will be interesting to see how Google uses its new Inception-esque technology to change users minds in the future.