Alphabet Think Tank Spearheads Online Counterterrorism Campaign

Alphabet think tank Jigsaw and startup Moonshot CVE last week demonstrated a new counterterrorism technology tool during a Brookings panel.

The groups have been collaborating on an international effort to steer social media users away from Islamic State terrorist propaganda. They have developed sophisticated algorithms to target potential ISIS sympathizers and recruits with counter narratives when they search for certain terms online or through social media.

During an eight-week pilot program, the groups presented targeted advertising and curated videos to more than 300,000 people who searched for specific terms that were known to be calling cards for ISIS propaganda. They laid out their results at the Brookings event.

The organizations hope to extend the effort to dissuade potential domestic extremists from violent hate groups and other radical influencers in the U.S.

Teen Recruits

Users as young as 13 have been going online with naive ideas about joining ISIS, noted Yasmin Green, head of research and development at Jigsaw. The program targeted those users, without passing judgment on their ideas, with videos that give a balanced and graphic picture of life under the terrorist group.

“The start for us was really wanting to reach an audience that was already sympathetic to the Islamic State,” Green said during the Brookings panel discussion.

The researchers not only conducted online targeted advertising research, but also followed it with actual field study, taking trips around the world to talk to some of the young people who had shown an interest in joining ISIS.

The program has shown some promise in sending potential sympathizers in another direction, but the impact of this kind of work is limited, observed Susan Hennessey, a Brookings fellow in national security and former National Security Agency attorney.

“It’s not clear how well the technology is targeting people who are really at risk,” she told the E-Commerce Times, noting that the metrics on the kind of person who actually would join versus the kind of person who would remain an inactive sympathizer are not fully developed.

Recent court cases show that potential extremists are influenced by direct human relationships more than online recruitment or influence, in terms of converting them from interested spectators to actual terrorists, Hennessey said.

The Jigsaw program follows Obama administration efforts to get Silicon Valley’s help in developing strategies to counter extremist activity on social media. The San Bernardino shooting last year was among the more high-profile domestic incidents reflecting ISIS’ ability to use the Internet to radicalize susceptible people.

“The CVE Task Force at DHS is working to strengthen engagement between the federal government and the [private] sector to counter violent extremism online,” said DHS spokesperson Neema Hakim.

“The tech sector can help by addressing violent extremist content online that violates the terms of service,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

Social Media Crackdown

Facebook, Twitter and other social media have taken their own steps to counter violent extremism online, either through enhanced enforcement of terms-of-service violations, or more proactive methods to steer users away from radical or violent material.

Twitter last month announced that it had suspended an additional 235,000 accounts for violating its terrorism-related policies. It announced the suspension of 125,000 accounts earlier this year.

Daily suspensions increased 80 percent from last year, Twitter said, with a spike in suspensions taking place right after terrorist incidents.

There is no magic algorithm for monitoring terrorist activity, the company noted, but it has been using proprietary spam-fighting tools in an effort to stay on top of it, and it has been sharing information with other social media platforms.

Twitter has been working with various organizations around the world, like True Islam in the U.S., Imams Online in the UK, and Parle-moi d’Islam in France, spokesperson Nu Wexler told the E-Commerce Times, and Twitter representatives have attended summits convened by the French Interior Ministry and the Indonesian National Counterterrorism Agency.

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business and The New York Times.

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