Fighting terrorism with technology

How the brightest minds are using new methods to fight a different war

A few weeks ago, I read an article describing how a branch of Google, Jigsaw, is using targeted advertising to send anti-radicalization messaging to people searching for terrorism-related searches.

First of all, what a brilliant idea. My original complaint against the “War on Terror” was that you can’t fight an idea the same way you would fight an army. It doesn’t work. It still strikes me as insanity to be fighting the same way we’ve been fighting for hundreds of years. Troops on the ground, looking for the bad guy is an idea that needs to be amended and that’s exactly what Google is doing.

You can’t fight an idea the same way you would fight an army.

There are so many ways that radicalism can seep into every corner of society without so much as a second glance; Disaffected youth, the uneducated, those with mental illness. They’re all targets for radicalization and groups like ISIS have learned to do it exceptionally well.

This means that every time we stop a terrorist or kill the leader of a hate group, ten more soldiers seem to pop up out of nowhere. That’s what makes Google’s (and Facebook & Twitter) initiative so amazing. They are cutting off the supply of new terrorists. If you think of what they’re doing as a marketer or from a business perspective, the idea gets even stronger and can have further applications beyond helping to end the world of terror. Google is delivering their message at the exact moment an idea is being born. They are subverting that idea and turning it from hate-filled to purely informational and positive.

This anti-brainwashing may sound scary — Google does have all the power in the world, but so far, they’ve wielded it responsibly. “Don’t be evil” seems to be working as they are literally taking evil ideas and making them… not so evil.

Showing an ad about how an ISIS cell actually operates to a potential radical is a wonderfully passive form of anti-radicalization. They aren’t saying “to complete this search, please watch this video about not being a terrorist,” which wouldn’t work at all. I think terrorists would just put that ad on mute. The genius is that they are just offering up information. More like, “Here’s your terror-related information as requested… and if you have a minute, check out these other videos.

It’s all about presentation… And a brilliant foundation.

They are learning how to re-wire ideas. What struck me when I started really considering what Jigsaw is doing—and has been doing since 2013 — is that ISIS isn’t the only likely candidate for this type of idea-hacking.

The world of politics is already filled with people willing to pay anything or ignore any law to gain power. Forget TV ads when you can literally brainwash a voter into thinking your opponent is wrong on all the issues.

Imagine corporations conditioning consumers to think that a certain brand or type of food could be harming you. The Corn Refiners Association tried this with television ads in 2009, promoting high-fructose corn syrup. It definitely didn’t play as well as they would have liked, getting them sued for falsely claiming HFCS was the same as sugar and even parodied on SNL.

These examples are likely already happening on certain levels. Targeted advertising isn’t a new idea. Companies are already vying for every eyeball, dollar and second of time they can grab, but Google, Facebook and Twitter seem to be interested mainly in doing the right thing.

My question is what’s next? Will social networks be creating a community of support for those recently recruited or recently out of a radical group? Will the use of bots be employed? Imagine an army of human-sounding AI bots that could literally be everywhere, watching for certain searches, messages and online-behavior; Ready to jump in and push the correct agenda at the exact right time.

It’s not a question of if, but when these things will start to happen. Every member of the online community should be grateful to the big-three (Google, Facebook, and Twitter) for starting us on the actual path to global peace, but mindful that those with the most power have the most responsibility.