Reaching into uncharted political waters, Google recently prototyped a program designed to direct potential ISIL recruits away from the terrorist organization. This effort, termed the Redirect Method, funnels users to a carefully curated list of YouTube content that denounces ISIL indoctrination efforts. These videos include testimonials from “former extremists and imams denouncing [ISIL’s] corruption of Islam, [as well as] surreptitiously filmed clips inside the group’s dysfunctional caliphate.” Ultimately, the Redirect Method harnesses the same analytical tools that allow the company to deliver personalized search results and ads to its ordinary users. But instead of promoting the best shoe deals or airline ticket offers, Google is now directing individuals whose search patterns hint at an interest in joining ISIL towards “credible organic voices online debunking [ISIL’s] narratives.”
Despite the seemingly adversarial nature of the Redirect Method, Google has had tremendous success in pushing would-be radicals to view anti-ISIL content. Normally, the company’s personalized advertising content attracts user attention, in the form of a mouse click, 2-3 percent of the time. With the Redirect Method, that number triples to over 9 percent. Further, the hundreds of thousands of searchers influenced by the Redirect Method spent nearly half a million minutes watching anti-ISIL content.
Google’s decision to create and deploy the Redirect Method is a direct response to ISIL’s ability to harness social media as a radicalizing force. ISIL regularly generates content, to the tune of 38 new items a day, and has leveraged social media to cultivate a powerful brand. This saturation has been wildly effective; it is believed that as many as 30,000 individuals have been drawn to the Middle East by propaganda spread using social media. Google’s desire to curtail these recruiting efforts, then, is entirely natural. Though this desire is intuitive, it may also open a Pandora’s box filled with concerns about the broader ethics and partisanship of Google’s Redirect Method. Ultimately, these concerns are founded upon the increasingly power-laden and politically pointed roles that knowledge plays in the modern world.
Though the Redirect Method may represent one of Google’s most successful attempts at directly shaping a user’s exposure to content, it is hardly the company’s first. In 2010, the tech giant implemented a protocol similar to the Redirect Method, targeting users experiencing suicidal thoughts. Upon searching terms like “ways to commit suicide” the site listed the toll-free number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline as the top result. Even more extreme then influencing search results, the company also engages in direct censorship at the behest of certain national governments. Countries like China, Turkey, Germany, Poland, France and Thailand block material that is deemed politically inflammatory. Sensitive topics range from pro-Nazi propaganda to defamatory remarks about treasured national leaders. Beyond these country specific omissions, Google also strives to eradicate results for queries related to child pornography or other elicit material in all countries that it serves. This sort of censorship elides certain search results altogether, a step even farther than measures like the Redirect Method.
Despite Google’s long history of both direct censorship and more conspicuous intervention efforts, the Redirect Method is seemingly unique. Prior censorship cast a wide net; entire countries could not access certain content that was deemed too politically charged. And prior intervention efforts were, primarily, about well-being; in the face of dire straits, individuals were directed to resources designed to help them. But the Redirect Method is lost somewhere in the middle. Fundamentally, it is a re-imagination of the power of companies like Google to offer personalized experiences replete with content tailored to an individual’s preferences. Instead of constructing a virtual world in-line with a user’s opinions, the Redirect Method actively provides material designed to challenge their politics, as outlined by their search history. Though few in the US would demonize such efforts when directed against organizations like ISIL, the initiative as a whole raises larger ethical concerns. Chiefly, who gets to decide when such intervention is appropriate, and how does one ensure overtly partisan considerations do not tint those interventions?
Both of these questions offer complex answers because Google has entered uncharted waters. As outlined above, Google has traditionally acted with an eye to politically charged material only at the request of particular governments. Agreeing to elide certain search results opened certain markets and any political grievances could be foisted upon government actors; Google’s hands were clean. With the Redirect Method, however, the firm has autonomously waded into the political arena. While it is certainly too strong to describe this initiative as sinisterly propagandistic, it also seems naïve to continue viewing Google as an apolitical body driven solely by a desire “to organize the world’s information.” At the very least, one must concede that the information Google offers is not presented in a vacuum; it is not value-neutral. So while inserting an ad that directs users to an anti-ISIL testimonial does spread potentially lifesaving knowledge, it also undermines a given political perspective (deviant though it may seem).
The conflict between the politics and the power of knowledge is at the heart of ethical qualms about the scope of the Redirect Method. In the ISIL example, most Western sensibilities would agree that the benefit of impeding radicalizing forces outweighs the cost of minimizing particular voices. The societal benefit is apparent in this example. But what about an issue like climate change? Should a similarly targeted strategy be directed at those whose search histories indicate they deny the science behind the phenomenon? There certainly is an undeniable social benefit to fighting climate change. Yet generating the communal will to implement key measures by harnessing a protocol akin to the Redirect Method would come at the expense of political liberties.
Ultimately, novel technical applications like the Redirect Method will always generate questions of intentionality, of what and who. To tackle such complexities, both Google and national governments must engage in open dialogue about how these technologies shape user experience. Beyond addressing the how, these efforts at ethical evaluation ought to consider whom new technologies are most likely to effect. Ultimately, the Redirect Method offers immense potential as an anti-terrorism innovation. Though the method’s implementation does raise valid concerns about censorship and the partisan dissemination of knowledge, Google has been broadly faithful to its corporate motto: “Don’t be evil.”