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How a British Think Tank Targets Google Results to Counter ISIS Propaganda

If you're a British Muslim who's googled "how to get to Syria," you may have seen their work.
June 2, 2015, 1:05pm
Image: Steve Allen/Shutterstock

Are you a British Muslim who's googled "how to get to Syria"? Have you come across an animated video detailing why you shouldn't make the trip to join ISIS? That's not by accident, but the result of a partnership between Google Ideas and a British think tank.

At the Web We Want festival in London this weekend, Zahed Amanullah from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) explained how the think tank—which "got frustrated just thinking and wanted to start doing"—has agreements with Facebook, Twitter, and Google for the tech giants to use the same techniques they use to target advertising to amplify posts that counter extremist propaganda.

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Instead of simply taking down material deemed extremist, the ISD initiative is trying to fight back against ISIS online with the same methods used to keep us clicking. "What we do is we use their resources to help scale up credible voices," Amanullah said.

In the example Amanullah shared, the think tank found a series of videos posted on YouTube by a member of Against Violent Extremism, a network of former extremists listing reasons why people shouldn't travel to Syria to join ISIS. Details were limited, because "the whole point is not to have our fingerprints on it"; ISD doesn't want the video in question being identified as used in their project.

"With the help of Google, we did a trial project with it in which we brought in some advisors to help craft it a little bit better—without changing the content, we had no say on the content—and with Google we trialled some variations of it and targeted it at specific audiences," he said.

"Over a six-week period we reached over 50,000 at-risk youth."

They targeted young British Muslims who had searched for key terms, such as travelling to Syria; made the video look like it had been posted by ISIS, to capture views from people choosing to watch such content; and altered the length, words used to describe the video, and so on—classic SEO and audience-building techniques—to see which would work best.

"Over a six-week period we reached over 50,000 at-risk youth," he explained.

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Amanullah explained how they targeted people in an email after the conference: "The targeting was geolocated to searches within Britain with selected ads shown following search terms (either for the web or for videos) ranging from general information on Islam to specific information searching to go to Syria for jihad. The ads linked to videos which revealed profile information if logged into YouTube/Google accounts. The more specific search terms that appeared to show an interest in extremism or the situation in Syria indicated a likelihood of reaching at-risk youth in the target area (Britain)."

British Muslim youth searching for information about Islam may sound a wide net, but Amanullah claimed at the festival that they targeted a "very specific subset of young people in Britain".

"But it's important that this campaign reached those people—it wasn't important that it went viral," he said. "The whole point is that the people who are susceptible and who are already exhibiting interest see it."

"The answer to hate speech is often more speech, and speech pushing back."

ISD trialled 20 versions of the video, and measured its success using standard web metrics, including how long the video was viewed all the way through. The think tank considered the project a success, and the lessons learned will be applied across other social media sites, Amanullah said. "If we had a thousand of these, aimed at different communities with different nuances and different culture backgrounds, then maybe we'll make a dent in this," Amanullah said.

It's early days and more research is needed to understand the best ways to counter extremism online. Both Amanullah and Katherine Brown, a lecturer in Defence Studies at King's College London and another panellist at the festival, suggested the work to counter ISIS online is at risk from government plans to ban extremist content, forcing social media sites to take it down or stop it before it's even posted. "Once you start banning certain material from being online and visible to everyone, it goes underground… which makes it much harder [to counter] because they're not visible," noted Brown.

Amanullah added that any effective counter narrative must "acknowledge grievance", as one of the complaints that drives some people to become radicalised is that the government controls what people can say and feel. "We have to be mindful of that," he said, adding that "the answer to hate speech is often more speech, and speech pushing back." Even if you have to fiddle with search results to make sure it's seen.