Google Uses One Weird Trick to Dissuade Would-Be Islamic State Recruits

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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.

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ISIS-Chan, the Crowdsourced Anime Meme Information Operation

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ISIS-chan loves melons, not violence

Several months ago during research about Islamic State (IS, also called ISIS or ISIL) on Twitter, I noticed some strange photos among the typical young men posing in masks, murdered people, and captured American weaponry: an anime-style drawing of a green-haired girl with a melon. Frequently these tweets were in English, Arabic, and Japanese.

Confused, I clicked the hashtag on these tweets, #ISIS_chan, unwittingly becoming another successful target of a new type of post-modern warfare: the crowdsourced information operation.

The girl, called ISIS-chan, has her roots on a Japanese image sharing board called 2chan (the website that inspired the infamous meme generating, hate mongering 4chan). The premise is simple: draw the character according to the appearance guidelines and post on social media using common IS hashtags in attempt to draw attention away from IS propaganda.

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ISIS-chan is often Photoshopped into IS propaganda

“Chan” is a Japanese honorific added to names usually used for children or other cute people. The suffix “-chan” is considered a cute way of saying “-san”. So, ISIS-chan is basically the Japanese equivalent of “ISISette” in English. The rules for drawing (or otherwise artfully creating) ISIS-chan are simple: She is a 19 year old girl with short green hair and green eyes who wears black clothes (like IS fighters). She has brown skin, a large bust(?), and loves musk mellon.

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ISIS-chan’s description from Tumblr

But there are rules to drawing ISIS-chan other than her hair color and bust size. ISIS-chan must not be portrayed in a pornographic or violent manner and references to the Islamic faith are forbidden. The effect of these rules is that ISIS becomes a cute girl cutting melon — instead of a band of masked bandits beheading people in the desert — while attempting to avoid alienating Muslims at large.

It is unclear whether ISIS-chan was the organic creation of a Japanese image board or the brainchild of a brilliant young staffer at an intelligence agency. Judging from official information operations such as the much harangued Department of State failure “Think Again, Turn Away” and the arguably worse French government website on how to detect a jihadist, my bet is on organic creation.

More wonderfully, ISIS-chan is not even the only hashtag and search engine bombing campaign against IS. Twitter users also upload pictures of other cute things, like kittens, to dilute IS’s message. Most of the time searching for IS media is depressing, and possibly dangerous (as the FBI uses search history in arrests), but sometimes it is fun:

So, ISIS-chan is cute and is filling internet search results about IS with cute pictures, but how effective of an information operation is it? Seeing ISIS-chan is probably not convincing any would be recruits to change their minds, but it does make it marginally harder to find legitimate IS propaganda.

One form of civil resistance is to slow operations and make it more difficult for the system being fought against to be successful. Examples of this are protestors blocking streets, going limp when arrested, prisoners flooding their cells, etc. Since it costs practically nothing to create and upload these images onto free websites like Google, Twitter, and Tumblr, the benefit-cost ratio is impressive.

In any event, drawing a cartoon girl is a much better way to fight IS than some of the spontaneous American reactions to IS terrorism, like leaving pig heads at mosques,  engaging in armed protests at mosques, or shooting mosques. Americans, how about we just leave mosques alone, alright?

I have written before about how the internet affects political violence by making it easier to disseminate information. It has also recently come to light how Facebook is now an online marketplace for arms trafficking in Libya, Iraq, and other places. ISIS-chan is yet another example of how the internet has changed war. Sun Tzu wrote that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Today, crowdsourced information operations (i.e. memes) are yet another tool in the 21st Century hybrid warfare toolbox.