Don't Be Evil

What Google doesn't get about violent extremism -- and how it can do better.

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.

None of these problems are insurmountable, and my former CVE colleagues at the State Department and around the world are working hard to address them. What they need now are not new program ideas, which they have in abundance, but new ways of paying for and assessing them. Google Ideas is uniquely situated to help in both areas because of its parent company's business success and vast data resources.

On the business side, Google is adept at using search traffic to sell advertising. Google Ideas could come up with ways for organizations to make money online by engaging in CVE work. For example, companies could purchase expensive advertising space on the website of a CVE organization and in return receive cheap online advertising elsewhere. The CVE organization would receive most of the revenue for the space, the company would get good press for supporting it, and Google would still make a small profit. Doubtless, there are moneymaking techniques for text messaging as well.

Google has more data than anyone else in the world about the interests and habits of radicals. There are privacy issues of course, but that should not stop Google researchers from looking at anonymized data to discover patterns and information that can help create better CVE programs and campaigns. I spend an unhealthy amount of my time on Arabic-speaking jihadi discussion boards, and in doing so I have learned a great deal about the news preferences, geographical locations, and reading habits of that community. Imagine what you could learn if you could see everything the discussion-board participants search for outside the forums. Google Ideas can pull that information together.

Faced with a problem like violent extremism, the temptation of policymakers is to do something. The temptation of web devotees is to do it online. Neither impulse is necessarily wrong, but the policymakers need to ask whether the effort is worth it and the tech people need to be able to answer them convincingly. Measuring success with hits, tweets, or texts is insufficient when dealing with a problem as complex as preventing someone from adopting radical views.

A more fundamental question is whether the whole enterprise of preventing youth radicalization is worth the effort. Youth will be youth, which is why a surprising number have clung to Nazism long past its sell-by date. Moreover, bad beliefs are much more difficult to police and address than bad behavior; it's much easier to stop a suicide attack than it is to prevent someone from wanting to kill in the first place. Policing extremist viewpoints also risks alienating large swaths of people and impinging on cherished freedoms, which feeds our enemies' story line of a civilizational struggle. Finally, U.S. policies in the Arab world -- the heartland of Islam -- also contribute to radicalization and are unlikely to change. Even if the United States were to uproot all its troops and bases from the region, it would have to maintain its unpopular alliances to protect its strategic interests there.

I am not ready to give up on the enterprise of countering violent extremism just yet, but I am less sanguine about its chances of success than I was before I started working on the problem. Google Ideas' summit has not increased my optimism, but its resources and potential do.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images


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