Q&A

Google's anti-terrorism plan creates a game of whack-a-mole

For years, online video has been be a powerful recruitment tool for violent extremists. Now, online giant Google has announced a new plan to combat terrorist content online. But will its plan work?

Google's plan a good thing but 'won't really get at the full issue,' says terrorism researcher

Google is pursuing a tactic known as the redirect method, where online ads will target potential ISIS recruits and redirect users to anti-terrorist videos. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

For years, online video has been be a powerful recruitment tool for violent extremists. Now, Google has announced a new plan to combat terrorist content online, including beefing up technology and human expertise to moderate content.

The online giant will also put warnings up on videos that "contain inflammatory religious or supremacist content" and prevent these kinds of videos from being monetized.  

It's also pursuing a tactic known as the redirect method, where the browser will identify keywords and phrases that people attracted to ISIS commonly search for, then redirect users to anti-terrorist videos.

But will its plan work?

Why the focus on online video?

Lorne Dawson, a sociology and legal studies professor at the University of Waterloo and the director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society told me that when it comes to terrorist radicalization, online video is often the first point of contact for potential recruits.

"So the videos are kind of the first line of contact and connection, especially in the context of recruitment which then leads to reading, maybe entering into a chatform and in some cases, actual contact with a recruiter — someone who purposefully starts to cultivate an individual or to assist them," he said.

When you compare ISIS to al-Qaeda, the number one difference, propaganda-wise, is how ISIS understands the power and importance of online video that can be shared on social media, he said.

So it makes a lot of sense that Google's newly announced initiatives focus on video. Specifically,YouTube.

ISIS understands the power and importance of online video, which is why Google is targeting extremist and terrorist videos. (Reuters)

How will we know if any of these measures are effective?

Measurement is a huge challenge.

A big part of what makes measuring this stuff difficult is that Google will try to measure a negative — it would measure how many people didn't radicalize and there are no good metrics for that.

However, Google can measure the number of views and time spent watching counter-narrative videos. Another good indicator is whether there's a decrease in the number of terrorist videos available on a service like YouTube. Or they could measure the time it takes for a video to be identified, flagged and removed.

But ultimately, none of those metrics will say how many potential extremists weren't radicalized.

It's also really difficult to quantify the impact of extremist videos themselves. A video may have a large number of views on YouTube. Some of those views may have come from people who are potential terrorist recruits. But some of those views may have also come from students, watching videos for a school report on radical extremism, or researchers, such as Lorne Dawson and his colleagues.

So yes, measurement is widely regarded as difficult.

But just because the results are difficult to quantify doesn't mean the initiatives aren't worth pursuing.

Lorne Dawson, director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society, said when Twitter started to crack down on extremist accounts, many simply moved to Telegram instead. (CBC)

Are Google's efforts to fight terrorism likely to be effective?

Dawson said Google's efforts are definitely a step in the right direction and likely to make an impact. He thinks Google's doing a good thing here.

But, he told me, extremists are incredibly resourceful, technically sophisticated and highly motivated. And one company — even a company as large as Google — can only do so much. 

"So it has to be a comprehensive approach. If it's just a few major companies then it's helpful, it's effective, it's a good public relations activity for those large companies but it won't really get at the full issue," he said. 

Dawson said that when Twitter started to crack down on extremist accounts, many simply moved to Telegram instead. So the same thing could potentially happen with Google and YouTube. 

It's a game of whack-a-mole and Dawson expects it will continue that way for a long time.


After seven years, I am stepping away from the tech column. I just wanted to take a minute to say thank you to all the readers and to the the entire team that helps with this column. It's been a real pleasure. I'm sad to leave, but I'm also really excited about what's next for me, which is podcasting. So one more time: thanks, and I'll hope to talk again soon!

About the Author

Dan Misener

CBC Radio technology columnist

Dan Misener is a technology journalist for CBC radio and CBCNews.ca. Find him on Twitter @misener.