Over the past year, the tech giants have come under fire for not doing enough to fight ISIS’s digital army on their own turf. Now Google, Jigsaw and Facebook are experimenting with new ways to use algorithms and the latest open source technology to try to pull potential ISIS recruits back from the edge before it’s too late.
An initiative called the redirect method, which launched six months ago in the United States, uses Google’s not-so-secret weapon: Algorithms that target ads designed specifically for you.
“The Redirect Method, put simply, is a way of using advertising to counter and prevent extremism and terrorism,” said Ross Frenett, a director at Moonshot CVE, the company working with Google on the project. “So someone types in ‘I want to join jihad into Google…’ we’ve placed an advertisement into the top of that search which is asking them a simple question. ‘Do you want to join the struggle? Find out more here.’”
The video may look like ISIS content, but it has a very different message. For example, it may show what life is really like in the caliphate, how ISIS is failing militarily and people are struggling. Another video could talk about the heartbreak left behind — such as innocent children being killed.
Another type of ad may come up too — a simple banner asking if you’re struggling, feeling lost or overwhelmed.
“We’ve found that those individuals looking for extremist content are disproportionately likely to click on messaging related to mental health,” Frenett told ABC News.
Surprisingly, despite Google’s huge wealth, the redirect project is funded by a small private foundation called Gen Next.
“I think government and the private sector have to work together to solve this problem,” said Adnan Kifayat, head of Global Security Ventures at Gen Next.
After years at the White House and State Department, Kifayat is convinced that the U.S. government cannot be a credible partner in creating counternarratives. “What we need are more companies and more philanthropists like Gen Next to get into this fight and say, ‘Yes … this is our battle as well. This is not someone else’s battle. It’s not going to happen elsewhere unless we take it on ourselves.”
Facebook is going one step further. Instead of pushing counternarrative content that individuals may or may not click on, Facebook is about to launch “One to One” – a direct online intervention model with real-life people trying to engage with potential recruits before they become violent.
“The linchpin to recruitment is really in the one-to-one engagements that happen between recruiters and at-risk individuals,” said Sasha Havlicek, the cofounder and CEO of a London think tank called the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “Right now nobody’s reaching out to those individuals except for ISIS, except for those who would recruit them in. What we try to do is essentially step into that void and compete with that kind of attention and outreach to individuals who are often very lost, very angry and engage with them.”
The key, Havlicek said, is finding the right person to intervene and begin an online conversation.
“We’re identifying thousands of individuals who are expressing support for violent extremist groups, and then we are pairing those individuals up with intervention providers that have a real chance of shifting the course of their radicalization trajectories,” she explained.
Reaching out are former extremists, counselors and survivors of terrorism who are trained to connect with potential recruits on a personal basis — people like Colin, who survived a terrorist attack at a Tunisian beach resort hotel in June 2015.
“How I survived I don’t know,” Colin told ABC News in an exclusive interview. “I was lying on a beach with sunglasses on with my wife on holiday. Everyone around you gets killed.”
Thirty-nine people on the beach that day were killed when a single gunman opened fire on tourists lounging in the sun. “I heard what I thought was fireworks,” Colin said. “I looked up and my wife was running. I felt a bullet pass under my arm, felt the velocity. I got shot a few times – only flesh wounds. I swam out to sea.”
Eventually Colin was reunited with his wife. Back in London he went to speak to a local imam because “I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life thinking every Muslim I met was a terrorist … I wanted to try to stop anything like this from happening again.”
He was approached by ISD to join the One to One program, using his personal story to reach out to potential terrorists like the one who almost killed him.
“I was so scared when I made first contact, I imagined him sitting in his room with an AK-47, but that never happened,” Colin said.
Since then, Colin has made contact with over two dozen extremists online, sometimes messaging them for several hours. “It’s been very helpful to me. I had to face my fears,” he said. “I think it can help stop terrorism. That’s why I do it. Just talking to them and asking right questions and right dialogue. “
Colin said several people he spoke to wanted to leave the country and go fight. He doesn’t know for certain that he changed their minds, but he said at least he tried.
This is an excerpt of a conversation Colin said he had in May 2017 with a potential American ISIS recruit whom he was trying to dissuade.
Here’s a sample of their message exchange, with Colin identified as “intervention provider” and the potential recruit as “identified user.”
Intervention provider: “Islam is such a peaceful religion and way of life. I respect your religious beliefs.”
Identified user: “The definition of Islam, being a religion of peace, is wrong.”
Intervention provider: “Really?”
Identified user: “Although it endorses peaceful interactions with everyone. But Islam, as in its own meaning is about submitting your will to Allah, the Lord of Universe, with completeness, and we ought to do what he commands. If he asks us to behave nicely, we do it. If he asks us to feed poor, we do it.”
Intervention provider: “Does he tell you to kill innocent people?”
Identified user: “And if he asks us to wage war against those, who fight Islam, fight laws of Islam, kill Muslim, we do it.”
“We’ve identified tens of thousands of extremists expressing violent sentiment,” said Havlicek. “We have performed interventions in the U.K., in the United States and in Australia. I’d say about a third of those interventions have happened in the United States already.”
“There is no silver bullet, but we believe that this area of programming is the missing link in terms of addressing the challenge of radicalization,” she added. “We will not beat this problem without direct interventions, both offline and online. This is the only way we walk people back from the edge in terms of violence.”