A leading group of private industry developers cultivated a plan to create and disseminate targeted anti-extremist online content to disrupt online terrorist recruitment efforts. Since the pilot program’s initial success in targeting ISIS recruits, this method has been further utilized to counter other extremist groups such as the violent far right.
As the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) loses territorial strongholds and suffers military defeats, the organization has expanded its online presence in an attempt to recruit new members and spread its ideology. As ISIS works to recruit new fighters via the internet, ISIS supporters identify a possible recruit and encourage other ISIS sympathizers to surround that individual with support and social input. Members of ISIS then encourage the potential recruit to isolate himself from family, friends, and community, and enter encrypted messaging forums where they engage with the individual and urge them to act on behalf of ISIS.
Until recently, the primary force countering ISIS’s recruitment techniques has been governmental agencies. These agencies have attempted to prevent young Muslims from joining ISIS by deploying public service announcements. This method is believed to be most effective in dissuading those least persuaded by ISIS’s measures and likely has little impact on individuals who sympathize with or have joined ISIS.
To more effectively deter potential recruits, private sector actors have begun to develop new methods to disrupt ISIS’s recruitment strategies by employing targeted counter-advertisements. Jigsaw, a technology think-tank owned by Google, has developed a program that utilizes Google’s search algorithms and YouTube’s video platform, to target potential ISIS recruits and dissuade them from joining the group. The idea to redirect potential recruits to anti-ISIS material stemmed from the realization that, while the demand for ISIS related information on the internet is quite high, there is also an abundance of credible, organic material on the internet that challenges the narrative put forth by ISIS.
The Redirect Method pilot program strategically placed advertisements next to results from 1,500 Arabic and 1,000 English keyword and phrase searches that potential ISIS recruits commonly use. The program collected data on keywords that suggest the browser has a positive view of ISIS such as supporter slogans, ISIS-related news searches, and research into how to join ISIS. As the program progresses, it evolves its methods by targeting keyword and phrase searches that indicate the browser’s knowledge of and interest in ISIS is deeper than that of an average browser. Browsers using these terms were served advertisements that subtly undermined narratives put forth by ISIS.
The ad campaign features three distinct formats: text ads, image ads, and video ads. The advertisements do not explicitly present anti-ISIS narratives: to entice individuals interested in ISIS to click the advertisements, they must be drawn in carefully and strategically. The advertisement display appears innocuous to potential ISIS recruits. When clicked on, these advertisements redirect the individual to either an Arabic or English YouTube channel that hosts videos intended to change the individual’s outlook on the world, thereby dissuading them from continuing their engagement with ISIS.
The program does not utilize well-known counter terrorism videos. Rather, the videos employ counter-narratives that subtly undermine, but do not explicitly refute, ISIS. Redirect Method identified 5 narratives that ISIS commonly uses in its recruitment techniques: good governance, military might, religious legitimacy, call to jihad, and the victimhood of Muslims worldwide.
Redirect Method identified categories of videos that could effectively dissuade individuals from joining ISIS: citizen journalism and documentary footage, religious debate videos, and videos of ISIS defectors. After identifying videos on YouTube that fit within these categories, and using counter-narratives that were objective in nature, the program created separate “playlists” based on ISIS’ five recruitment techniques. Each of the five playlists was constructed in both Arabic and English, and was designed to tell a compelling story that countered a specific technique.
The program, initially launched as a pilot project, experienced high degrees of success. During a two-month period, over 320,000 people who used ISIS associated keyword and phrase searches were directed to anti-ISIS YouTube channels. Nearly 58,000 of the browsers who clicked the advertisements were English users, and 263,000 were Arabic users. Moreover, the targeted advertisements were clicked on by internet browsers three to four times more often than an average advertisement. Individuals who clicked on a redirecting advertisement, spent two times as long much time watching the anti-ISIS material than an average browser spends watching videos on YouTube. In total, individuals watched over half a million minutes of 116 videos that combat ISIS’s recruitment themes. Following the program’s success, Redirect Method expanded its programming to target potential recruits from other extremist groups, such as the violent, far right. A ‘blueprint’ is located on their website for those interested in replicating their success.
Effectively implementing a global targeting campaign demands that methodology employed be based upon data. Data collected must reflect the differences across regions, languages, and ideologies. Working with experts who understand the intricacies of the targeted group helps to ensure that the campaign, when implemented, will reach the intended targets. Technology and advertising, specifically in the context of a global targeting campaign, can be a powerful tool for activists and advocates to counter violent extremism, as well as counter other attitudes hostile to the promotion of equity and human rights for all.
New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.