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White House Hopes More Companies Follow Google in Using Ad Tech Against ISIS

Bombs, bullets, and online ads—the tools of modern warfare.
September 15, 2016

Ad-targeting algorithms have proved their power by driving eye-popping growth in the profits of companies such as Google and Facebook. President Obama’s special assistant on counterterrorism says they can also help rein in the Islamic State.

Jen Easterly today praised a pilot project by Google in which people who search for phrases signaling an attraction to ISIS are given links to YouTube videos featuring former extremists and Islamic leaders speaking out against the group in English and Arabic. She said that it wasn’t her place to tell tech companies what to do, but she gave a clear signal that more projects like Google’s would be welcome.

“That was a really interesting idea that I understood had some success,” said Easterly. “Projects like that sound like a great idea to me.” In addition to being a special assistant to the president, Easterly is senior director of counterterrorism on the National Security Council. She spoke at an event on Internet technology and policy held by the company CloudFlare.

Easterly and terrorism experts outside government say that savvy messaging via social media has played a crucial role in the rise of ISIS (see “Fighting ISIS Online”). Easterly said today that slick videos supported by social-media campaigns have helped draw supporters to the ISIS territory, start satellite groups in other countries, and inspire attacks like those in Brussels and Paris in the past year.

Google’s effort to turn its ad technology against ISIS sympathizers appears to have been triggered by a meeting between government officials and tech company leaders about how the industry could help combat the group. That meeting was a response to the mass shooting by two ISIS sympathizers in San Bernardino, California, last year. Senior government officials met with tech company leaders to discuss how they could help suppress ISIS’s online operations.

Since the summit, Twitter has also stepped up efforts to make its network less welcoming to ISIS supporters. The company said last month that since the middle of 2015 it had suspended 360,000 accounts that promoted terrorism.

Silicon Valley companies such as Google and Twitter have long argued that they are generally not responsible for policing what people talk about on their platforms. The White House has acknowledged that asking tech companies to help out with counterterrorism raises “a lot of complicated First Amendment issues.”

But failing to suppress terrorist content could make a company liable under U.S. laws prohibiting “material support” for such groups. And Google has recently been willing to take a more active role in policing content on its sites, instituting a ban on ads for payday loans (see "What's Behind Google's Secretive Ad Blocking Policy").

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