How the private sector can help the government stymie ISIS’ spread

Google’s tech incubator Jigsaw created a targeted advertising campaign to direct potential ISIS recruits to videos that debunk extremist narratives.
(Getty Images)

Private companies are in a unique position to help the federal government find ways to fight ISIS in cyberspace, a government official said.

State Department’s Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel said Wednesday at a Brookings event that a combination of efforts from both sectors is what will ultimately “win the day” against the terrorist organization.

“We really believe that the private sector has many more answers in this space than we do,” Stengel said.

And indeed, one example is a program Google’s tech incubator Jigsaw developed: targeted advertising to draw people to curated videos that are “debunking extremist narratives,” said Yasmin Green, head of Research and Development at Jigsaw.


Jigsaw identified a set of keywords people who may be sympathetic to ISIS could use when searching online, and then they targeted ads at people searching those words, Green said. The ads used vague wording so as not to be overtly anti-ISIS.

“The branding philosophy, really for the entire pilot, was not to appear judgmental or moralistic, so really to pique the interest of individuals who had questions,” Green said. “Questions that are being raised and answered by the Islamic State.”

[Read more: Inside the tech being used to combat ISIL online]

Their questions are answered by the curated videos. In choosing the videos, Jigsaw talked to former members and supporters of ISIS about what voices would resonate with ISIS sympathizers.

Ross Frenett, co-founder and director of Moonshot CVE, a partner on the project, said the ads had to walk the line between seeming overtly anti-ISIS, and appearing to be pro-ISIS propaganda.


The ad got a better response the closer it walked to that line, he said.

“It’s a difficult tightrope to walk actually, but one that if you get it just right you can draw people in,” Frenett said.

The eight-week pilot campaign reached 320,000 people in Arabic and English, who watched more than half a million minutes of video that refutes ISIS’ messaging, she said.

When asked if a subsidiary of a tech company should be involved in this sort of thing — if it was perhaps a bit “Orwellian” — Green said, for a tech incubator, “this is about access to information.”

“We’re betting on people with more and better information, making better informed choices,” she said.


Stengel said the program was “extremely promising” and recommended other nations and groups look at it.

The program is particularly relevant in the context of ISIS’ shrinking physical caliphate, Stengel said. He said the organization has shifted recruitment tactics from macro messaging on the benefits of the caliphate to draw people to move there, into focusing on radicalizing people wherever they are.

“They’re moving in this new direction, which is targeting lone actors,” Stengel said. “So I think the method that Jigsaw is pioneering is actually really particularly useful in this new era where it’s not macro messaging where you’re getting recruits, and you’re not competing in the macro video space, you’re competing in this very narrow targeted space.”

When asked if he was concerned about these efforts being undermined by publicly perceived close ties to government, Stengel said those efforts are not and should not be too closely linked to government.

“Just the way we realized early on that we’re not the best messenger for our message because we’re the U.S. government, the tech companies also don’t want to necessarily link arms with the U.S. government and say, ‘Hey, we’re in this together,’” Stengel said. “And that is exactly as it should be.”


But Stengel did note that there is “tremendous overlap of interest between the tech companies and the U.S. government.”

When it comes to actually taking down extremist content for example, another element of the fight against ISIS recruitment, Stengel noted that tech companies’ customers do not like seeing the violent content.

“I have customers, U.S. citizens, who don’t like that either and so we have a kind of unanimity of interest there,” Stengel said.

He also said, “Tech companies don’t get enough credit for all of the things that they’ve done.”

Google and Twitter have been “so aggressive about not having their ecosystems polluted,” Stengel said, and the number of people following ISIS fan boys has gone down.


While free speech activists have expressed concerns that taking down content could limit free speech, Stengel said when it comes to tech companies removing content “the more aggressive they are the better.”

“I do think that this is the kind of content that should be taken down,” Stengel said. “The tech companies don’t have the first amendment, they have terms of service, which are their constitutions, and that allows them to take down this kind of content and so I think all of that is good.”

Samantha Ehlinger

Written by Samantha Ehlinger

Samantha Ehlinger is a technology reporter for FedScoop. Her work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and several McClatchy papers, including Miami Herald and The State. She was a part of a McClatchy investigative team for the “Irradiated” project on nuclear worker conditions, which won a McClatchy President’s Award. She is a graduate of Texas Christian University. Contact Samantha via email at, or follow her on Twitter at @samehlinger. Subscribe to the Daily Scoop for stories like this in your inbox every morning by signing up here:

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