Hundreds of thousands of people seeking information about Islamic State on Google have been diverted to anti-extremism search results, as part of a drive to stop Muslims becoming radicalized online.
The pioneering project directed people searching for particular Isis-related terms to YouTube videos that confront jihadist propaganda.
The under-the-radar scheme, which has been praised by government ministers, made use of Google’s AdWords service, which allows organizations to pay to have their results at the top of searches. Keywords targeted included the Isis slogan baqiya wa tatamaddad (remaining and expanding), the deferential termal dawla al islamiya (supporters of Islamic State), and the organization’s media sources Al-Furqan, Al-I’tisam, Al-Hayat, Amaq news agency and Ajnad.
Names of buildings in Isis-controlled areas known to host recruits, such as the Ninawa International Hotel in Mosul, in northern Iraq, were included.
The project, known as Redirect Method, was launched in a pilot scheme by Jigsaw, a technology incubator formerly known as Google Ideas. It was operated by the London-based tech business Moonshot CVE (Countering Violent Extremism).
The initiative comes amid growing criticism of the failure of technology giants to prevent online radicalization.
The scheme has escaped the hostility aimed at the British government’s Channel and Prevent anti-radicalization strategies, which go further in identifying and challenging potential jihadi youngsters but have been attacked by some groups for perceived stigmatization of Muslims.
Redirect Method’s first task was to work out which words might interest a potential fighter. Former extremists, researchers and online advertising specialists helped to choose terms which could identify searchers at risk of radicalization.
“Amaq News” was added in March when Isis used the outlet to claim responsibility for the Brussels bombings which killed 32 people.
Moonshot did the English-language version of the scheme while Quantum Communications, with offices in Lebanon and Washington, produced an equivalent in Arabic.
Users were invited on their screens to watch specially created YouTube channels with playlists of anti-Isis videos. The clips chosen were available online.
The videos included real footage from the self-styled caliphate’s de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, first-hand accounts of what life is like under Isis, and imams challenging the group’s interpretation of Islam.
In English, there were 30 campaigns covering more than 1,000 keywords. The Arabic campaign was more extensive. The Redirect Method’s pilot claimed to reach 320,000 online users in eight weeks. Engagement was quantified in terms of “click-through rate” and effectiveness was judged by how long users spent watching the content.
Baroness Shields, minister for internet safety and security and a former managing director at Facebook, said: “Global technology companies play a vital role in addressing this challenge posed by terrorists and extremists using their platforms to radicalize, recruit and inspire.”
Analysis: Search engine could class anyone as extreme
The Redirect Method may threaten anti-establishment groups and could damage trust in the Google search engine, according to Arun Kundnani, former researcher at the Institute of Race Relations.
He says that it sets a dangerous precedent for the future of ideas online.
“Once we have accepted this for people we call jihadis, it will be easier to accept it for all sorts of other radicals. There is a danger that Jigsaw will end up identifying individuals who express dissenting or unpopular opinions, classify them as extremists, and then opaquely engineer their information environment — what we would normally call propaganda.
“There will be growing distrust of [Google’s] search algorithm and people will choose to rely on other information sources that more closely match their world view.”
Ian Pearson, a futurologist, said: “Superficially it looks like a good thing. If someone’s in the early stages of radicalization then redirecting them along a safer path and stopping them from being radicalized would seem to be a good idea.
“On the other hand, you do wonder why Google is this great moral arbiter of our time — where does that mandate come from? Why do they think that they’re the people who should be making such decisions? Surely we have governments that do that.”