Insights | Information: The Best Weapon against Radicalization

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Yasmin Green, the director of research and development for Jigsaw, speaks at the beginning of a talk about fake news on Tuesday March 14, 2017 at SXSW | Photo courtesy Daulton Venglar/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

They were starved and abused. While they wouldn’t have believed any negative information about ISIS once indoctrinated, they said had they known what membership entailed six months prior to deciding, they never would have joined.

This was the information Yasmin Green gained as she sat speaking with young boys who had been recruited by ISIS. Leading a team of researchers from a technology incubator called Jigsaw, Green had traveled to Iraq to understand the use of technology in recruiting members for extremist groups. The boys told her they had bought into a freedom narrative. Their passports and phones were confiscated by ISIS as soon as they arrived at the base, taking away both their physical and digital freedom. They weren’t allowed to move freely around the camps or express their opinions.

This is why Green believes that one of the best responses to radicalization is to provide more information, rather than less. While many of this year’s United Nations General Assembly meetings have highlighted violent extremism, civil society actors are also working to find solutions, gathering on September 17 for the Social Good Summit to explore the role of technology and the internet.

The annual summit’s goal is to bring together a “community of global citizens” and progressive leaders to discuss the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, touching on topics from universal healthcare to gender-based violence to climate change. During the summit, Green led a session titled “Extremism in the Age of Fake News.” In the session, she spoke about her trip to Iraq and the ways the Internet can be used to prevent people from being recruited by extremist groups.

Jigsaw, as a part of Google’s Alphabet Inc, aims to solve global security challenges through technology. Alphabet has been focusing on preventing the spread of extremism by reaching out to youth online “when they’re sympathetic, but not sold”: when there’s still a chance to change their minds.

But identifying these individuals posed a challenge: to create an algorithm that can distinguish between people googling ISIS out of curiosity and those who are sympathetic to its cause. Jigsaw found that an algorithm similar to the one being used to select product advertisements on YouTube or Facebook can also be used to find people at risk of joining an extremist group.

Using this information, Jigsaw developed the Redirect Method to combat ISIS’s online recruitment, combining Google’s search advertising algorithms and YouTube’s video platform. It targets potential ISIS recruits and attempts to dissuade them from joining the group by placing advertisements alongside results for keywords and phrases that, according to Jigsaw, people interested in joining ISIS usually search for. Those ads lead to YouTube channels, in both Arabic and English, that contain a collection of videos Jigsaw believes can counter ISIS’s influence.  These include testimonials from former extremists, imams denouncing ISIS’s corruption of Islam and clips of newly arrived recruits being abused inside the group’s caliphate.

Green said that groups like ISIS already use a similar algorithm to reach potential recruits, so she’s advocating for using it to prevent indoctrination. “We can and should use technology to reach people and help protect them from radicalization,” Green said. “We have measurements that show we can engage them.”

This feeds into the debate of whether the internet and social media are partially to blame for making recruiting easier or can they be part of the solution. ISIS members have used social media to promote themselves and to encourage people interested in joining to contact them through encrypted messaging apps such as Cyphr and Signal. This year, after calls to action from the G7, the European Union and the G20, industry leaders including Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and YouTube announced they’ll partner with state leaders to form the Global Internet Forum on Counter Terrorism (GIFCT). France, Italy and the UK organized a side event this September during United Nations General Assembly Leaders’ Week, where they discussed the forum’s actions to date and encouraged other governments to work with them.

This proves that the answer is both. While terrorist groups can use the Internet to their advantage, so can the rest of us to counter them. In Green’s words, “the Internet is not the whole problem and it’s not the whole solution.” It all depends on how we choose to use it.

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About Author

María Rendo is a graduate student in the International Relations program at New York University, where she studied Global Liberal Studies and Romance Languages as an undergrad. She grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and now lives in Brooklyn. She is currently leading the HeforShe Initiative at NYU and blogging for Girls’ Globe, as well as interning at the Permanent Mission of Honduras to the United Nations. Her research area is in the implementation of a gender perspective in development programs and gender equality, with a focus on Latin America.

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