A Google-incubated program that has been targeting potential ISIS members with deradicalizing content will soon be used to target violent right-wing extremists in North America, a designer of the program said at an event at the Brookings Institution on Wednesday.
Using research and targeted advertising, the initiative by London-based startup Moonshot CVE and Google’s Jigsaw technology incubator targets potentially violent jihadis and directs them to a YouTube channel with videos that refute ISIS propaganda.
In the pilot program countering ISIS, the so-called Redirect Method collected the metadata of 320,000 individuals over the course of eight weeks, using 1,700 keywords, and served them advertisements that led them to the videos. Collectively, the targets watched more than half a million minutes of videos.
The event at Brookings was primarily about the existing program aimed at undermining ISIS recruiting. “I think this is an extremely promising method,” said Richard Stengel, U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.
Ross Frenett, co-founder of Moonshot, said his company and Jigsaw are now working with funding from private groups, including the Gen Next Foundation, to target other violent extremists, including on the hard right.
“We are very conscious — as our own organization and I know Jigsaw are — that this [violent extremism] is not solely the problem of one particular group,” Frenett said.
“Our efforts during phase two, when we’re going to focus on the violent far right in America, will be very much focused on the small element of those that are violent. The interesting thing about how they behave is they’re a little bit more brazen online these days than ISIS fan boys,” Frenett said.
He noted that this new target demographic is more visible online.
“In the U.K., if someone in their Facebook profile picture has a swastika and is pointing a gun at the camera, that person is committing a crime,” Frenett said. “In the U.S., there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. So we found that when we’re looking for individuals that are genuinely at risk of carrying out violence, that they’re relatively open online.”
Adnan Kifayat, head of global security ventures at Gen Next Foundation, said he is optimistic about applying the ISIS approach to North America. “Our interest is in countering extremism … particularly in the homeland,” he told The Intercept.
Gen Next Foundation, based in Newport Beach, California, was founded by a group of young executives, authors, entrepreneurs, and others to fight terrorism.
In the ISIS pilot program, the YouTube channel pulls pre-existing videos that, according to Yasmin Green, the head of research and development for Jigsaw, “refute ISIS’s messaging.”
One video is from a woman who secretly filmed her life in ISIS-controlled Raqqa. Another shows young people in Mosul, their faces obscured by keffiyehs for their protection, talking about life under the Islamic State.
“The branding philosophy for the entire pilot project was not to appear judgmental or be moralistic, but really to pique interest of individuals who have questions, questions that are being raised and answered by the Islamic State,” Green said.
The next phase will also home in on changes in users’ behavior.
“The idea that you can’t measure consumption patterns online is frankly absurd,” Frenett said.