What tech companies can do to counter violent extremism

The Islamic State hashtag (#ISIS) is seen typed into the Twitter application on a smartphone in this picture illustration taken in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, February 6, 2016. Twitter Inc has shut down more than 125,000 terrorism-related accounts since the middle of 2015, most of them linked to the Islamic State group, the company said in a blog post on Friday. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic - RTX25PB6

As ISIS continues to expand its presence online, private sector actors have become increasingly involved in the counter-messaging effort, introducing new approaches aimed at disrupting online recruitment. On September 7, the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings hosted a panel of experts in counter-messaging to discuss the tools and strategies the private industry is using to disseminate anti-extremist content online. Brookings Senior Fellow and Director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World Will McCants moderated the conversation.

Yasmin Green, head of research and development at Jigsaw (formerly Google Ideas), discussed a new project spearheaded by the company, and in collaboration with Moonshot CVE, Quantum Communications, and the Gen Next Foundation. The project aims to counter extremist—and specifically ISIS—recruitment online through what Green referred to as “the redirect method,” which has three key phases:

  • Research: In the research phase of the project, Jigsaw worked with researchers to better understand ISIS recruitment tactics online. They identified frequently used terms that are deferential towards ISIS, and came up with a “key terms list” meant to appeal to a target audience of ISIS sympathizers.

Advertisement: Green described a process by which Jigsaw and its partners use online advertisements meant to appeal to their target audience. The goal of these ads, Green explained, is not to appear judgmental or moralistic, but to “pique the interest of individuals who have questions, questions that are being raised and answered by the Islamic State.”
Video: By clicking on one of these advertisements, users are redirected to Jigsaw’s YouTube channel. Green explained how the channel, with input from “credible voices” such as citizen journalists, imams, and ISIS defectors, aims to answer the types of questions ISIS sympathizers often have. These questions often center on “ISIS’s religious legitimacy, their military competency, [and] their effectiveness as a governing state.”

Ross Frenett, co-founder and director of Moonshot CVE, described the difficulty in creating advertisements that counter ISIS but that are not “of the finger-wagging variety.” “If people listened to their finger-wagging elders, then we wouldn’t have a problem in the first place,” Frenett explained. It is thus “a difficult line to walk,” creating ad content that is not blatantly anti-ISIS, and therefore attractive to ISIS sympathizers, without looking too much like ISIS propaganda.

Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Affairs Richard Stengel offered the U.S. government’s perspective on the role of the private sector in countering extremist propaganda. According to Stengel, there has been a shift in ISIS messaging, which began as a narrative about “the joys and beauties of the caliphate,” and has since “moved in a new direction, which is targeting lone actors.” As such, Stengel argued, Jigsaw’s method, which operates in a narrow, targeted space, is highly effective.

When asked to expand on the efficacy of Jigsaw’s counter-messaging program, Frenett said they cannot yet measure how many people the program has prevented from joining ISIS. But, Frenett explained, the private sector has a “laser focus” on finding new ways to measure behavioral changes online. Green added that to maximize the efficacy of counter-messaging, she would like to see closer collaboration between counter-messaging initiatives online and de-radicalization initiatives on the ground.

McCants asked Stengel to comment on the often-controversial relationship between the U.S. government and counter-messaging initiatives such as the one Jigsaw is spearheading. According to Stengel, the idea that the U.S. government and the tech companies are at loggerheads when it comes to counter-messaging is a misconception. “There’s tremendous overlap of interests between the tech companies and the U.S. government,” Stengel stressed.

What is the future of Jigsaw’s counter-messaging project? According to Green, the project seeks to “marry the demand for extremist material with the credible voices that could refute that message.” But, Green argued, the redirect method is versatile, and not limited to a specific group, language, or ideology. Thus, the project will likely continue to increase in scale, specifically by incorporating new languages and targeting new groups of people.

Frenett also explained “phase two” of the Jigsaw-led project, which addresses not just Islamic extremism, but also far-right extremism in North America. “Phase two” will also include a wider range messaging to address other categories of issues that may make people vulnerable to ISIS propaganda, such as mental health issues and feelings of social isolation.

Frenett reminded the audience that the key to effective counter-messaging is not to condemn ISIS sympathizers outright, but to engage them and try to understand their needs. “If you try and engage someone,” Frenett said, “if you meet them where they are, even if you don’t completely agree with them, then they will want to engage in [a] conversation, and that is step one…in getting them on a more peaceful path.”