Google Ideas, the Silicon Valley giant's self-proclaimed "think/do tank," just wrapped up its Summit Against Violent Extremism in Dublin. According to the director of Google Ideas, former U.S. State Department official Jared Cohen, the purpose of the summit was to "initiate a global conversation on how best to prevent young people from becoming radicalized and how to de-radicalise others." To this end, the summit organizers gathered an impressive array of policymakers, activists, and former militants -- from neo-Nazi skinheads to Islamist radicals to Irish ultranationalists -- to discuss the problem. A worthy endeavor, no doubt.
The conference, as the identity of its host would seem to imply, was heavily focused on the power of technology to combat radicalism. Former militants and aggrieved mothers can dissuade youth from joining violent groups; competing networks can distract them; and outlets for positive activism can channel their energy toward more productive ends. In each area, Cohen says, technology will be the key to "engineer[ing] a turn away from violence." Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, the BBC reports, harbors an "almost messianic conviction that new technology can eventually help prevent angry young men from drifting into a life of violence and extremism."
If these are indeed the conclusions of the conference, Google Ideas needs more thinking and less doing in its approach to countering violent extremism (known as CVE in U.S. government circles). The U.S. government, its allies, and NGOs around the world are already engaged heavily in each of these areas, at least with regard to Islamist radicalization (the major focus of the summit). For them, the primary challenge is not coming up with new solutions, but rather financing them, measuring their effectiveness, and ensuring they do more good than harm.
The funding challenge is daunting. Even in good times, most government money goes toward kinetic solutions to terrorism -- killing or capturing bad guys -- not preventive measures. And we are certainly not in good times now, with Congress slashing programs left and right. In any case, the scope of the radicalization problem is so massive that such programs, even when properly funded, are usually water poured on sand. Private industry and wealthy individuals often delight government agencies and NGOs by dangling donations, but these rarely materialize, have too many strings attached, and are insufficient in any case. Pure volunteer efforts are rare and difficult to sustain.
What's more, those programs that do get funded cannot demonstrate their effectiveness. How does one measure the absence of radicalization? It is difficult to assess through polling because the overall incidence of radicalization is usually so low that it falls within a given survey's margin of error. It is impossible to measure by examining how many people join a positive social network or retweet an anti-extremist message. Did those people ever hold extreme views? If so, did they really abandon their views because they said something moderate, visited a moderate website, or attended a moderate forum? What about all the others who did not join or retweet?
Programs that focus on preventing people from becoming radicals, moreover, risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their objects often feel singled out and stigmatized, especially Muslims in the West, who already worry they are being surveilled and scapegoated. The British government has recently realized the damage done by combining social programming with counterterrorism work, leading it to declare that it will "make a clearer distinction between our counter-terrorist work and our integration strategy."
Finally, technology is likely enabling, not slowing, the spread of militant ideas. The Internet is a particularly valuable recruitment tool, bringing together extremists from all over the world in a virtual cauldron of hatred and radicalism. YouTube -- which is owned by Google -- is rife with militant propaganda, and militant discussion boards are just a Google search away. With the advent of more insular social networks and targeted searches, the opportunities for being exposed to contrary voices, competing networks, and positive alternatives -- all the things that expose would-be militants to different ways of thinking -- will further lessen.