The 13-year-old girl’s explanation for why she had decided to leave her happy family in London to fly East and join ISIS was frighteningly naive:
“She told me, ‘Well, I was looking at photos online and I thought I was going to go live in the Islamic Disneyworld,’” quotes Yasmin Green, head of research and development at Jigsaw, the think-tank spun out of Google earlier this year.
“It’s so incredible because what you and I see in the media, nothing would support the impression that this is an 'Islamic Disneyworld,’” Green says. "But this is what this 13-year-old thought she was signing up for.“
The militant group has become adept at radicalizing people through digital propaganda like what the child found online. Ultimately, authorities only prevented her from joining the Islamic State’s jihadist group because they pulled her off the plane before it took off. Green met the girl during Jigsaw’s extensive research into ISIS’s online recruiting narratives and how people get sucked into them.
Fast-forward more than a year, and Jigsaw has turned its research into a formula it hopes will dissuade potential recruits. The initiative takes advantage of Google’s main skill: Advertising.
Debunking ISIS propaganda through ads
Green envisions targeting that 13-year-old during her early indoctrination phase, before she boarded her plane.
Jigsaw's so-called Redirect Method identifies keywords and patterns of online activity that reveal that a person may be on a path towards extremism. Then, it serves those people search, display, and video ads that push them to messages that subtly undermine ISIS propaganda.
Crucially, the ads don't come across as overtly anti-ISIS. If a 13-year-old is searching for information about the Islamic State using complementary terms, the names of specific recruitment leaders, and insider slang, the key is presenting her with materials that she would want to engage with, but that ultimately marginalize ISIS ideas. That was one of Green’s big take-aways from her conversations with the girl: People don’t click on the kind of content that they don’t want to see, so you have to draw them in delicately. Basically, you help get someone out of the ISIS echo chamber by at first making it unclear that they’re leaving it.
"It’s essentially a targeted advertising campaign with curated content that debunks the mythology of ISIS,” explains Green. In an 8-week, recently completed pilot program in both English and Arabic, Jigsaw supplied the ad targeting know-how and partnered with organizations Moonshot CVE and Beruit-based Quantum Communications for the content.
If a user clicked on one of the innocuous-looking ads they’d be ushered to a curated YouTube playlist of independently-created videos. Some examples include footage of an elderly woman confronting ISIS fighters, testimonials of ISIS defectors, and speeches by imams explaining the disconnect between Islam and ISIS.
Only one step
Although it’s murky to try to measure the “effectiveness” of Jigsaw’s trial campaign, Green says that 320,000 people clicked on its ads, and it saw a click-through-rate that was 70% higher than other ads against the same keywords (the typical click-through-rate of Google’s ads generally is between 1.5 and 3%).
Notably, this isn’t some charity act from Jigsaw or Google. These are real, paid for ads. Jigsaw’s Green says the Redirect Method is powerful because it can scale. It can scale, because it’s like any other ad campaign. All Jigsaw has to do is hand-off what it learned about keyword and search targeting and then organizations with funding can pour as much money into redirects as possible.
As a company, Google can’t just block all ISIS materials from showing up in Google search results. Jigsaw’s strategy gives it a low-risk way to help marginalize the group’s messaging without running into free speech issues.
Charlie Winter, associate fellow at the international center for counter terrorism at The Hague tells Business Insider that he's cautiously optimistic about the program overall.
“I think Jigsaw and Moonshot both understand this issue very, very well, and I think that they’ll be much better at deciding which counter-narrative will be most effective than most governments and NGOs, since they’re using empirical evidence versus what’s in the media,” he says. But still: “I think we should be careful not to overestimate or exaggerate the value it will have."
He stresses that, ultimately, Arabic speakers who have been more thoroughly sucked into the ISIS worldview likely won’t be watching videos on YouTube, since so much violent ISIS content has been scrubbed from the site for violating its terms-of-service. He doesn’t see Jigsaw’s ads changing the minds of hardcore recruits, though it could manage to reroute those in the earlier stages of radicalization.
Jigsaw’s Green acknowledges that this is only one step out of many. Ideally, she says, Jigsaw’s content partners or a third party would follow-up with anyone who liked or commented on one of the curated videos through YouTube’s messaging system to help with de-radicalization.