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How Silicon Valley fights ISIS on social media

A photo showing an official Twitter account on a smartphone.
A photo showing an official Twitter account on a smartphone.

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A new report out from the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue looks at three experiments backed by Twitter, Facebook and Google’s parent company Alphabet aimed at counter-messaging extremist propaganda online.

Researchers set out to explore what kinds of messages and targeting could reach nascent extremists before they become radicalized by internet propaganda.

Starting last fall, Facebook began targeting nearly half a million teenagers and young adults who posted the words “sharia” or “mujahideen” with animated pop-up videos in their news feeds.

AirTalk spoke with a co-author of the report, plus the founder of a non-profit organization that created some of the videos used in it, to find out how such counter-narrative campaigns find success.

“Extremist groups are targeting people who are vulnerable to radicalization with real precision and on scale," said Christopher J. Stewart, the co-author of the report. “Counter-narrative campaigns must match this efficacy and scale and remain innovative to all the changing online landscapes and the changing ways that extremist groups use the internet.”

Stewart stressed the importance of developing systematic ways to produce counter-narrative content, as the practice is still in its “infancy.”

What do you find to be the most psychologically effective means of reaching young people who may be caught up in the idea that extremism is a great, romantic and important cause?

It’s always really key to think about the audience when you are making a counter-narrative. Not every audience is going to have the same response to a certain piece of content as others.

Equally important is the credibility of the messenger. It might be that governments aren‘t always best placed to tell, for example, young Muslims in America to not join ISIS. It might be that there are more credible messengers in their community that should deliver that message. 

This is why we did the Google report: it’s figuring out what is impactful. It’s building an assessment framework. You have to try things before you know if they work or not.

Mohamed Ahmed, widely known as “Average Mohamed,” is the founder, chairman and executive director of an eponymous non-profit dedicated to creating a counter-dialogue to terrorism. He creates brief animated videos that challenge the ideals of Islamic extremists.

“We take that extremist value, and we shoot it down ... with values that are anti-extremist,” Ahmed said.  “In other words, a counter-narrative. We make our message, and we expose that message to kids from ages 8 to 16 on social media for them to think about it. ... Our goal is to go ahead and create that narrative that says ‘this has nothing to do with our faith, everything to do with extremism, and that is wrong.’”

Several of his videos were funded by the ISD and used in their studies. He collaborated with the institute, Google, Twitter and Facebook to create algorithms that show his videos to people who use terminology that may suggest sympathy to extremist organizations.

In practice, how does this work?

Basically, for anyone who puts in the word “jihad” or “mujahideen” or “Islamic State” [to Facebook, Twitter, or Google] it would pop up. What some of these kids are looking for is Islamic State videos. The goal is to go ahead and say, “Look, here is a competition. Here’s a different message. Compete. Let’s hear these values. Let’s think deeply about them, and then figure out which pathway you want to go.” That was the main purpose of this whole counter-narrative program. 

I do outreach ... and you won’t believe how many kids come up to me and say, “Look. We didn’t know. We just didn’t know that these values exist within our faith and these values exist within our consciousness. The fact that you are making [these videos] helps me out a lot.” Or, “It helps my friend out a lot.” Usually that’s what they say. ... Parents have come up to me and told me the same thing. So it does work.

[Parents] use [my videos] because they are trying to have this conversation with their kids, and they don’t know how. ... No parent in my community believes their child is going to be an ... extremist. So they don’t talk to their kids about it. Here’s an opportunity where they can actually talk about it, and talk about our values, which are the majority of values, in a way that is acceptable and the kid can understand.

Ahmed said he has received death threats from YouTube users whose profiles feature Islamic State insignias. He has about 25 videos, and he hopes to create at least as many new ones before the end of the year.

These interviews were edited for clarity.


Christopher J. Stewart, co-author of the report and a Programme Associate at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue

Mohamed Ahmed, Founder, Chairman and Executive Director, Average Mohamed, a non-profit organization seeking to create a counter dialogue to terrorism