Terrorism’s Latest Nemesis — Alphabet’s Jigsaw

Google’s new strategy for coutern-terrorism? Talking to the humans behind it!

Jigsaw is an incubator at Google’s parent company, Alphabet, that is tasked with what is perhaps the most difficult of the jobs under that roof — solving the thorniest of geopolitical problems that emerge online.

The team is a think tank with the goal of fighting the unintended consequences of technological progress that have lately been raising a lot of concern.

What’s The Buzz About?

Social media platforms have been garnering a lot of negative attention over the last year — for things they never really anticipated their platforms would be used for. Under the pump for their (albeit unintended) role in the proliferation fake news, being carriers of extremist content, to toxic and hate speech, the dark side of the being internet has had these internet majors squirming of late.

With governments brewing laws to pin the companies down for what happens on their platform, fines piling atop each other and most importantly, the platforms becoming suspects of sorts, after any big incident — the pressure on social media companies has been building.

Google, Facebook, Twitter — each of them is struggling to keep it’s heads above the water. And everyone has been peddling really hard.
 Consequently, Facebook and Google have made fundamental changes in their frameworks over the last few months. Twitter is still testing out new coping mechanisms every day, trying to gain a handle on the issues.

So, What Is Jigsaw And How Might It Help?

Google Ideas was born around the turn of the decade, when Eric Schmidt (then Google’s CEO and currently Executive Chairman of Alphabet) approached Jared Cohen (formerly with the Policy Planning Committee at the US State Department), with the idea of a “think/do tank”.

A team of Google’s engineers, research scientists, product managers and policy experts were handpicked and tasked with the moonshot goal of dealing with the unindented uses and consequences of the advancement of the internet.
 Back then, the major concerns were cyber bullying and cyber-censorship.

Those goals have since expanded (and how!).

In February 2016, Google Ideas metamorphosed into a technology incubator named Jigsaw, when Google became Alphabet Inc.

What Are They Up To?

Jigsaw has come up with a unique approach — talk to the people causing the trouble.

No, don’t get us wrong — they do not plan to sit the recruits of ISIS down in an attempt to talk them out of terrorism. They instead, want to focus on understanding why it is that these people act in such extremist ways and how it is that their actions are enabled.

With that understanding of the why and the how, Jigsaw then plans to create mechanisms and tools to combat these problems.

Jigsaw has been talking to fake news creators, jihadis, and cyber bullies so that they can understand their motivations, processes, and goals.
 “We look at censorship, cybersecurity, cyberattacks, ISIS — everything the creators of the internet did not imagine the internet would be used for”, explained Yasmin Green, one of the leaders at Jigsaw.

With their compass pointed in the right direction, the task of eroding to the core begins.

The Visit To The Macedonian Fake News Factory

A case in point is that of Macedonia, the surprising haven for the pedlars of fake news that had held such a sway over the 2016 presidential elections in the U.S.

Green and her team recently visited Macedonia to meet with some of the now-prosperous creators of fake news, with the goal of understanding the business model of fake news dissemination.
 “[The problem of fake news] starts off in a way that algorithms should be able to detect”, said Green.

With the insight they gained from the visit, Green’s team wants to tweak with Google’s (and Alphabet’s) existing infrastructure, such that it detects the red flags.

Green’s team is working on creating algorithms that would identify the process with which fake news is disseminated, and then be be able to then disrupt it.

The team learnt that the content farms that disseminate fake news utilize social media and online advertising — the same things that legit online media and publishers use. The key then lies in the algorithm being able to detect the difference between what is legit content and what is content with malicious intentions.

Jigsaw is now working on a tool that would be able to do exactly that. The tool could not only be shared across Google, but also across competing platforms like Facebook and Twitter, in a hopefully successful attempt to curb the epidemic that fake news has become.

Tête-à-tête With ex-ISIS Recruits

Along with fake news, Jigsaw is also tasked with combating pro-terror propaganda on the internet, for which they came up with a different, yet an equally effective and innovative solution.

Last year, the team travelled to Iraq to speak directly to ex-ISIS recruits, and what came into existence as a result of that trip was the Redirect Method.
 The Redirect Method uses machine learning to detect extremist sympathies based on search patterns and then redirects users to content that is intended to play against their sympathies.

Say, one’s searches show a pattern of sympathy towards the ISIS. Once the pattern has been detected, the next time that user searches for a pro-ISIS video, he will be redirected to videos that show the ugly side of ISIS.

The technique aims to use counternarrative to dimish the allure of extremist ideology. For someone who has already reached the point that they are only two steps away from buying a ticket to Iraq and joining the caliphate, this method might not work. But as far as people who have just started to get curious are concerned, this is a method that could be effective, by appealing to the base instinct of preservation in the human being.

It’s mostly good people making bad decisions who join violent extremist groups”, Green says. “So the job was: let’s respect that these people are not evil and they are buying into something and lets use the power of targeted advertising to reach them, the people who are sympathetic but not sold”.

Since the launch of the Redirect Method late last year, a total of 300,000 people have watched videos served up by it.

Perspective On Cyber Bullying

Jigsaw’s to-do list is not done yet!

Another task on the list for Jigsaw is to create a tool to target toxic speech in the comment sections on news organizations’ sites.

Jigsaw has come up with a tool which they call Perspective — it is a machine-learning algorithm that uses context and sentiment training to detect potential online harassment, and then reports it to the moderators.

Currently, a beta version of Perspective is being used by the New York Times. If effective, the tool could not only be extended to other news organization, but across platforms encompassing public expression.

The tool is constantly evolving, which has its positives and its negatives. Because of its nature, the tool is open to the risk of being potentially biased against certain words, ideas, or even tones of speech. The potential of the tool can also mean that terrorist regimes, or authoritarian regimes, could tweak it and use it for complete censorship.

Fearing this, and other potential risks, the team has decided not to open up the API to allow others to set the parameters; they will be setting the parameters themselves for now.

“We have to take measures to keep these tools from being misused”, said Green. “Just like the internet itself, which has been used in destructive ways its creators could never have imagined”.

Jigsaw is clearly aware that not all of its solutions will be effective and that some of them could also be potentially misused, but that, for them, is no reason to stop trying.

Half Baked Egg Better Than None?

With the internet evolving the way it is today, something like Jigsaw is no longer a luxury for internet companies. They might not be the only ones to blame for all the issues of concern on the internet, but they are the ones on whose watch the issues are laying their tentacles, and resting peacefully.

While we do know that all social media companies are trying to derive mechanisms to deal with the problems on their platforms, it is refreshing to see Alphabet (née Google) take such a unique, and might I say, devoted approach.

There are several other projects that Jigsaw has running in related fields.

Project Shield, which uses Google’s infrastructure to protect independent news sites that tend to suffer crippling digital attacks when they publish something controversial or that questions powerful institutions.

Another one of their projects, one that is not quite technical, is called Abdullah-X.
 It is an animated YouTube series that explores themes of young Muslim identity in society and aims to steer young minds away from extremism. It is one of the things they are using to counter the propaganda from groups like ISIS.

Another important tool has been brewed under the Jigsaw roof is called Investigative Dashboard.
 Investigative Dashboard makes public, documents such as financial or property records, searchable. This is integral for journalists investigating money laundering or corruption. It also allows researchers and journalists to work collaboratively, creating a platform for data-driven investigations.

One of the other projects at Jigsaw taps into Google’s technical expertise to provide real-time interactive global maps of cyberattacks and tools for forensic video analysis of violent incidents in war zones!

Phew! I’m sure there’s a lot more that’s up Alphabet’s sleeves — perhaps stuff that doesn’t belong in public domain, but I think the list up-top truly is excellent representation of Alphabet’s intent to fight back — and excellent examples of how technology and Big Data, when leveraged for responsible matters, could change the path of history.

Google has always been a company that has set itself apart from the others. That has reflected in its original motto “Don’t be evil”, which was revised last year, to “Do the right thing”.

For a company that has always proven itself to be more ambitious and more altruistic than the usual profit-focused corporates, Jigsaw is what sets Google apart in the fight for Mankind’s Good, today.


Originally published at Chip-Monks.