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Search engines’ role in radicalization must be challenged, study says

Google search term Isis and islam

More than 484,000 Google keyword searches a month from around the world, including at least 54,000 searches in the UK, return results dominated by Islamist extremist material, a report into the online presence of jihadism has revealed.

The study found that of the extremist content accessible through these specific keyword searches, 44% was explicitly violent, 36% was non-violent and 20% was political Islamist in content, the last being non-violent but disseminated by known Islamist groups with political ambitions.

The study is one of the first to expose the role of the search engine rather than social media in drawing people to extremist jihadi material on the web. It argues the role of the search engine – a field dominated by Google – has been a blind spot that has been missed by those seeking to measure and counter extremist messages on the internet.

Although the UK government’s Prevent strategy claims the internet must not be ungoverned space for Islamist extremism and British diplomats have taken the lead in the global communications fight against Islamic State on the net, the study suggests government agencies are only at the beginning of a “labyrinthine challenge”. So-called counter-narrative initiatives led by governments and civil society groups are “under-resourced and not achieving sufficient natural interest”, suggesting the battle of ideas is not even being engaged, let alone won.

The study, undertaken jointly by Digitalis and the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics, will be challenged by those who claim it advocates censorship, has blurred the lines between political Islam and violent extremism and cannot validly quantify the presence of extremism.

But the findings come in a week in which there has been a spate of terrorist attacks in Germany and France, some undertaken by young people either radicalized on the internet, or using it to feed their obsession with violence. Many of the jihadist foreign fighters in Syria were radicalized online as “the search engine gradually overtakes the library and the classroom as a source of information”.

The study, entitled A War of Keywords: how extremists are exploiting the internet and what to do about it, argues “many of the legitimate mainstream Islamic scholarly websites host extremist material, including jihadi material, often without any warning or safeguards in place”.

It also argues non-violent Islamist organisations, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, have a very strong online presence and dominate the results for some keyword searches. Some of the most popular search words used were crusader, martyr, kafir (non-believer), khilafa (a pan-Islamic state) or apostate.

In a condemnation of government efforts it finds very little of this content is challenged online. Analysing 47 relevant keywords, the search-engine analysis found counter-narrative content outperformed extremist content in only 11% of the results generated. For the search term khilafah, which has 10,000 global monthly searches, the ratio of extremist content to counter-narrative is nine to one.

This is partly because counter-narrative sites lack search engine optimization so they do not rank high enough in searches, By contrast, Khilafa.com, the English website of Hizb ut-Tahrir, had more than 100,000 links into it.

The study also warns some of the most-used Muslim websites such as Kalmullah.com and WorldofIslam.info “host traditional Islamic content alongside extremist material” so are knowingly or unknowingly abusing the trust of their readers.

The study also claims a user can come across extremist content relatively easily while browsing for Islamic literature. Few effective restrictions apply to accessing Islamic State English-language magazine Dabiq or Inspire magazine, which is linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula. Both are readily available to browse and download through clearing sites.

The study produced its headline numbers by looking at the average monthly number of global searches conducted in Google for 287 extremist-related keywords – 143 in English and 144 in Arabic. It then looked at two samples totaling 47 keywords, the first sample focused on the most-used words and the second sample on the keywords deemed to be most extremist. The research then analyzed the first two pages thrown up by the search for these keywords.

The authors acknowledge the difficulties technology companies face in policing the results of their search engines. Google is responsible for 40,000 searches a second, 2.5 billion a day and 1.2 trillion a year worldwide. Facebook boasts more than one and a half billion users who create 5 billion likes a day.

Dave King, chief executive of Digitalis, argues: “While the company’s advertising model is based on automatically mining the content its users create, their ability to distinguish a single credible kill threat from the plethora who have threatened to kill in jest is highly limited.”

The study recommends governments, the United Nations, technology companies, civil society groups and religious organisations together establish a charter setting out a common definition of extremism and pledge to make the internet a safer place.

Technology companies, the report says, could work with governments to shift the balance of the online space, as well as share analytical data and trending information to bolster counter-efforts. It suggests search engine companies have been reluctant to or unable to alter the search algorithms that are responsible for search page rankings.

The authors also call for a debate on “the murky dividing line between violent and non-violent extremist material online”, arguing such legal definitions have been achieved over “copyrighted material, child pornography and hate speech all of which have been subject to removal requests.”

Exisiting content control software that prevents access to graphic or age-restricted material could be used and warning signals put on sites.

A Google spokesperson said: “We take this issue very seriously and have processes in place for removing illegal content from all our platforms, including search. We are committed to showing leadership in this area – and have been hosting counterspeech events across the globe for several years. We are also working with organisations around the world on how best to promote their work on counter-radicalisation online.”




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About the author

Sydney Chesterfield

Poet, Playwright, Philosopher, Humanitarian, mad lover of children and unflinching fighter for equality on all grounds viz. Women's rights, child rights, sine die.

Twitter: @syd_field