From hateful speech on Stormfront and Gab to the harassment of rabbis walking down the street in Germany to recent deadly violence at houses of worship in Pittsburgh, Christchurch, and Poway, it is painfully clear how online radicalization truly endangers communities. There’s a bright through-line from online hateful ecosystems to in-person violence. In fact, the perpetrators of all three of the aforementioned shootings were inspired by what they read online and actively involved in internet forums where extremism thrives.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. We must deploy every possible tool — from both the public and private sectors — to aggressively tackle growing online white supremacy as the global terror threat that it can pose.
That’s why the Anti-Defamation League is partnering with Moonshot CVE and the Gen Next Foundation to counter white supremacist and jihadist activity online. The program, dubbed the Redirect Method, will use advertising to provide individuals who search Google for violent extremist material with content that exposes the falsehoods of extremist narratives, providing searchers the choice of an off-ramp to radicalization.
Targeting content potential extremists search for — rather than focusing, for example, on what they post to social media — can directly address their harmful online behavior and desires. By providing them with credible sources, we hope to decrease the impact of extremist content and increase the spread of the truth, such as, there is no one “European” identity that is under threat. In this way, we speak directly to those who may be at risk of radicalization, and we incentivize re-thinking those ideologies with accurate information.
While it is too early to tell whether this method works, there is early evidence to suggest that it can have an impact on what content people searching for extremist content are ultimately engaging with and viewing.
Moonshot and Google previously launched a Redirect Method program for ISIS-related searches, which found that those who searched for ISIS content were highly likely to engage with the more constructive, non-violent content that was offered. This led to several thousand views of constructive materials in place of searches related to Islamist extremism. Our new project builds on this success while pulling from ADL’s subject matter expertise in extremist codewords and unique insights to lead the project.
The data on extremism is clear: white supremacist threats are increasing. ADL research has found that of the 50 murders in the US committed by extremists in 2018, all but one were linked to right-wing extremism and 78 percent were tied specifically to white supremacy.
Technology has accelerated the speed with which this hate spreads. Extremists have leveraged the anonymity and connectivity of the internet to move out of the shadows and into the spotlight. They have developed sophisticated, media savvy strategies to circulate their messages and reach a wider audience than previously possible. No longer is this content confined to the margins of society, online platforms embolden extremists like never before by creating an echo chamber that fans the flames of bigotry and violent fantasies. The internet now makes it possible for round-the-clock white supremacist rallies.
Throughout the next year, we will run thousands of ad campaigns across the United States. We will harness the vast array of content that has already been created by local organizations and individuals. We expect the results to provide promising insights into how white supremacists engage with online content and how we can use commercial tools to empower positive messaging to influence their behavior before they commit acts of violence.
Some people might hear about this and raise concerns that it could inhibit free speech. In fact, the opposite is the case. Internet content skews toward the virality of controversy, polluting the marketplace of ideas with vitriolic speech. The Redirect Method actually improves the online marketplace of ideas, not by limiting any speech, but by ensuring that hateful propaganda and intellectually honest information are presented side-by-side. Individuals are always free to ignore online advertisements, but we hope the alternative content will effectively challenge harmful ideologies.
There’s more to be done in fighting hate from wherever it rears its ugly head, but this is a significant step forward. We hope the Redirect Method will inspire tech companies, governments, and international groups to join us in creatively tackling this challenge so that platforms that are meant to bring us together to share ideas will not tear us apart. Together, we can be a force for good that prevents the viral infection of extremism from spreading further throughout our digital world.