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.

Dropping Cyberbombs on Islamic State

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Civilian and Army cyber personnel at a Cyber Operations Center in Ft. Gordon, Georgia. (Department of Defense/Michael L. Lewis photo)

A United States Air Force cyber officer recently told me that United States Cyber Command was shifting its focus to Islamic State (IS, also referred to as ISIS and ISIL). I was a little surprised to learn this, since it seems that China is the larger cyber threat. But after reading the recent New York Times article by David Sanger on the cyberwar against IS, the switch in focus becomes more clear.

While the National Security Agency and its military counterpart, Cyber Command, both focus on traditional threats such as China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran, the ability to use cyber attacks is less available and less publicly admitted due to concern over foreign sovereignty.

But with IS, it appears that the Obama Administration has an opportunity to use Cyber Command to attack an adversary and brag about it. Deputy secretary of defense Robert Work is quoted as saying, “We are dropping cyberbombs. We have never done that before.”

If “cyberbombs” seems like a bit of a strained metaphor to you, you are not alone. From Sanger’s article:

“It should not be taken out of proportion — it is not the only tool,” [National Security Advisor Susan Rice] said when asked about Mr. Work’s “cyberbombs” comment. In fact, some of Mr. Work’s colleagues acknowledged that they had winced when he used the term, because government lawyers have gone to extraordinary lengths to narrowly limit cyberattacks to highly precise operations with as little collateral damage as possible.

But Work is not the only one using strained metaphors. The mission statement of the Air Force cyber school includes creating the “world’s most lethal cyber operators”.

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Mission statement at USAF cyber school

Silly language aside, Sanger’s piece says Cyber Command has the ability to assist in the killing of IS militants by altering the messages of IS commanders “with the aim of redirecting militants to areas more vulnerable to attack by American drones or local ground forces.” Cyber command can also disrupt IS operations by stopping or misdirecting electronic fund transfers and President Obama claims that “our cyberoperations are disrupting their command-and-control and communications.”

But the cyberwar against IS may not be one-sided. A group of pro-IS hackers called the United Cyber Caliphate has responded to the announcement to use cyberoperations against them, threatening to attack the US. In the past, pro-IS hacker groups have released target lists of US government officials and police.

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Threat by pro-IS hackers posted on Telegram

In 1998, two Chinese army colonels published a manual called Unrestricted Warfare in which they outlined warfare in the age of globalization. In it, they argued that warfare must now include “using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests.” When it was written, the internet was a mere shadow of what it is today, but they argued that attacking networks would become an integral tool of tomorrow’s war.

Seventeen years later, Unrestricted Warfare’s tomorrow is now today. From Russia’s “hybrid war” in Ukraine to US cyberoperations against IS, the Chinese prediction of warfare beyond bounds has proved prescient.

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.

“Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie” or Two Reasons We Should Reject Polarization

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(Le Huffington Post Quebec Graphic)

Today, at least two masked gunman stormed the offices of the French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, killing 10 employees and two police officers in an apparently sophisticated act of terrorism performed by likely veteran fighters.

The reaction from the West has been enormous. Large protests against the brutal attack have sprung up in Paris, Berlin, New york, Amsterdam, Madrid, Rome, and Moscow among others. The rallying cry at these protests and on Twitter is “Je suis Charlie” or #JeSuisCharlie (I am Charlie) expressing unity with the victims of this murderous attack.

I understand the sentiment and the urge to unify in the wake of tragedy. Let me make it clear that I unequivocally condemn the murders of these ten citizens and the two police officers heroically attempting to protect them. However, I find the #JeSuisCharlie reaction wrong for two reasons: Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are racist and I refuse to reflexively accept a false dichotomy fallacy.

Charlie Hebdo is purposely offensive and publishes blatantly racist, anti-religous, crudely drawn cartoons in the name of “satire”. Many of these cartoons show images of the prophet Muhammad that many Muslims find offensive because their religious beliefs prevent them from depicting people, especially the prophet. At this point I do not doubt some of my readers might be thinking to themselves, “So what? Those aren’t my beliefs. They should get over it.” Well, that’s an entirely different kind of post, but if you are okay with offending other human beings simply because they do not share your cultural values, then I think you could use some remedial training in empathy. I recommend this not to insult you but as sincere advice, because undoubtedly as globalization continues and younger generations come to age you will be left behind.

But even if you think it’s okay to purposely antagonize people on the basis of their religion, I do not think most Americans think it’s okay to promote racist stereotypes. Culturally, we have been conditioned a little better to identify these and reject them. Most Americans would not be comfortable publicly labeling themselves racist. And yet this was in a way the overwhelming reaction to today’s events. Charlie Hebdo‘s depiction of Muhammad and other Muslims (which I have decided not to republish out of principle) are very similar to Nazi Germany and modern White Nationalist depictions of Jews. They both have exaggerated noses and are illustrated as ugly by a Western cultural standpoint. These types of images promote negative visual stereotypes and are meant to dehumanize the subject being represented. Americans can easily spot and decry these types of caricatures of black people both at home and abroad, but today it seems like the racist depictions of Muslims and/or Arabs were nearly universally overlooked by the Je suis Charlie movement, including prominent, usually sensible, liberal journalists such as Vox’s Max Fisher.

“But it’s satire,” some might say. I won’t get into a definition of humor because that too is another topic entirely, but let me suggest that there’s a difference between laughing with and laughing at. Furthermore, antagonizing and dehumanizing the members of an entire religion for the acts of a few extremists, who have (needlessly) denounced those extremists—and who have been the greatest victims of those extremists—is indefensible.

So, for the simple reason that I am not a racist who makes a habit of purposely harassing, humiliating, and dehumanizing entire religions, I am not Charlie. Je ne suis pas Charlie.

That should be enough, shouldn’t it? But in times like these it never is. By saying, “I am not Charlie,” some might take that as a tacit endorsement of mass murder or censorship. And herein lies the greater problem: polarization. As simple and satisfying as it is to reduce this to an us versus them issue, the fact that the “us” in this case is a company that makes a profit promoting hate in the form of tasteless, racist cartoons should make us take pause and reassess the purported sides. We do not have to support the lesser evil. Just because a group of ignorant cartoonists who made a living promoting stereotypes were attacked by those we perceive to be our enemy doesn’t mean they are our allies. I am not “victim blaming” or an apologist simply because I refuse to glorify or honor Charlie Hebdo.

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Max Fisher, usually right, is wrong.

The reaction to today’s act of terrorism is in this way similar to the reaction to North Korea’s hack of Sony and the threats over the release of The Interview. People went out of their way to buy a movie they might not have normally been interested in because of an imagined free speech issue and/or patriotism. But if these recent attacks have made you for the first time in your life defend terrible comedy films and racist cartoons, perhaps it would be wise to step back and reassess your belief system.

The teachable moment here is that you do not have to allow cyberwar or terrorism to force you to choose a side. You can refuse to be polarized. By choosing a side you only benefit the interests of the people, groups, and corporations that side represents—not yourself. Choosing to make a statement against North Korea’s attack on the sovereignty of the United States by spending your money on a garbage film in no way benefits you. It supports a (foreign) corporation whose sole aim is to make a profit. Likewise, making a stand against terrorism on a Western country by advertising a company that makes money selling purposely inflammatory, racist cartoons aimed at inciting people against religion does not benefit you. Again, you are simply giving free advertising to a company that couldn’t care less about your well-being.

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“I am a billboard for a company that brought Syria-style warfare to my city.” (AP Photo)

What has amazed me by today’s events is how journalists have rallied around Charlie Hebdo in solidarity. The impressive thing about terrorism is how effectively it can change the behavior of people either through fear, bravado, or simple human tribalism. My Twitter feed today was filled with journalists who would never publish a Charlie Hebdo-like cartoon under their own name acting like the weekly newspaper was bravely defending freedom. Similarly, many people I have great respect for reposted the famous Voltaire quote, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” What I am left wondering is who they are defending against. The French government protects the free speech of Charlie Hebdo and undoubtedly every conceivable effort is being made to bring the murderers to justice. Free speech was not under attack today. It was the rule of law and the safety and security of people that was under attack.

So again, who in this instance is being defended against? And how are they prepared to give their life in this defense? As of this moment the identities and affiliations of the murderers have not been confirmed. But when they eventually are confirmed, will these people join in battling against them—going as far as sacrificing their lives? Will they join the French military, who is simultaneously deploying soldiers both to Paris and a carrier to the Indian Ocean to potentially join operations against Islamic State? The answers here are probably, “No.” But by allowing ourselves to be polarized and using emotional, violent language as a response to violence that is being nearly universally condemned, we almost certainly improve nothing.

Political violence in the Information Age

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The internet’s role in changing 20th century political norms is well known, especially since 2011’s Arab Spring movement and social media’s huge role in it. But it is not just social media that is supporting radical change. In 2014 the most Googled “recipe” in Ukraine was for Molotov cocktails (beating Easter bread, homemade pizza, and “Vyshyvanka cake.”)

What did Google point these inquiring Ukrainians to? Answer: A Wikipedia article in Russian about Molotov cocktails.

As a millennial I naively wonder, “How was this knowledge passed around before the internet?” Encyclopedia Britannica doesn’t have an entry for Molotov cocktails. In the 1990s it seemed like you could find things like this in the Anarchist’s Cookbook, but that was still online. Said Cookbook’s only publisher stopped publishing it because they had a “responsibility to the public.” Ironically, Wikipedia’s priorities are more populist by disseminating information on how to make homemade incendiaries.

Like all discussions about the internet, it poses the question, “What did we ever do without it?” Obviously, political violence, insurgencies, and revolutions existed before the internet, but can they exist without it now? Al Qaeda infamously eschews digital communication in favor of couriers, but they have been completely eclipsed by Islamic State as the premiere jihadist movement in the world. And IS has no qualms about using the internet to promote their ideology. Their media arm frequently posts polished videos to YouTube of their human rights abuses (I won’t post a link here) leading to incredibly successful recruitment around the world. Even the music, radio, and television hating Taliban has trolled ISAF on Twitter.

Somehow we have reached a point in history where jihadist message boards have become passé (they’re so 2000s.) That’s political violence in the Information Age.