Google vs. ISIS and Freedom of Information

Author
Russell P. Johnson

October 13, 2016

“Don’t be evil” has since 2004 been Google’s unofficial corporate motto. Like other mottos, it’s vague but difficult to disagree with, and like other companies, it’s arguable to what extent Google lives up to its own self-declared moral standard. (I’ve done a bit of research on whether or not Google is evil, and curiously enough the top search results all seem to agree “no.”) But does this commitment not to be evil entail a commitment actively to do good? Some of Google’s higher-ups think the answer is yes, and have started to leverage Google’s considerable power for good. Not just lesser goods like helping people find pictures of Corgi puppies, but higher goods like stopping ISIS.

A recent initiative by Google’s think tank—formerly named Google Ideas, now more ominously called Jigsaw—aims at dissuading potential ISIS recruits from joining the terrorist organization. When people search for ISIS-related terms, Google directs them away from pro-ISIS websites and toward informational websites, anti-ISIS testimonials, and fact-filled YouTube videos that expose the hypocrisy and false ideology of the Islamic State movement. Jigsaw’s head of research and development Yasmin Green said, “The Redirect Method is at its heart a targeted advertising campaign: Let’s take these individuals who are vulnerable to ISIS’s recruitment messaging and instead show them information that refutes it.” It’s hard to measure how successful the early experiments with this method have been, but Google’s analytics show that many people are watching the videos and visiting the promoted websites. The program is at the very least successful enough that Jigsaw has made plans to expand and extend it to combat the recruitment efforts of American white supremacist groups.

Green articulates the value of this program in terms of a victory of fact over fiction. “These are people making decisions based on partial, bad information,” she said. “We can affect the problem of foreign fighters joining the Islamic State by arming individuals with more and better information.” In Jigsaw’s evaluation, ISIS is not just ethically abhorrent but factually inaccurate. Google can and should take up the fight against ISIS because Google is first and foremost a provider of information. Insofar as ISIS’s recruitment efforts depend on deceit and falsehood, Green argues, Google has a duty to dissuade potential converts.

Much could be said about the Redirect Method, but two things stand out to me. First, as a philosopher of religion, I find Green’s point fascinating. Regardless how one mixes the faith-and-reason cocktail, a theopolitical agenda like ISIS’s is undeniably still dependent upon information. People enlist in groups like ISIS not simply out of blind hate or misdirected zeal, but because they find ISIS’s description of the world reasonable and compelling. Green’s wording is suggestive: in “arming individuals with more and better information,” Google is acting on the assumption that facts may be as fatal to ISIS’s success as bullets. Google’s experiment rests on a perspective shared by many professors of religion; in Kofi Annan’s words, “Education is peace-building by another name.”

Second, this program raises the question of precedent. Though I doubt many net neutrality advocates will rally in support of ISIS, there is reason to be leery of Google’s self-appointed mission to steer users away from certain ideological stances. Given that the dream of the Internet is a pure democracy of information and opinion, do we trust Google to be the gatekeeper of theopolitical correctness? It’s one thing if I search for “crayons” and Google—after receiving a payment from Crayola—directs me to Crayola’s website. But what about topics far more controversial than my coloring hobby? How comfortable are we with the leading search engine employing “targeted advertising campaigns” on disputed religious and political matters?

The dilemma is this: everyone is pro-information, but we tend to see only the information that supports our particular worldview. Michael Oakeshott claims that to be conservative is “to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible...” On the other hand, Stephen Colbert quipped that “reality has a well-known liberal bias.” Proponents of either political perspective might in the name of information wish to redirect Google users away from the other, and it is worth discussing whether and to what extent this should be possible. Google’s initiative raises many questions for religion scholars to ponder, but for now I will rest content imagining ISIS recruiters reluctantly using Bing.com.

Resources

- Colbert, Stephen. Speech at White House Correspondents Dinner. April 29, 2006.

- Greenberg, Andy. “Google's Clever Plan to Stop Aspiring ISIS Recruits.” Wired. September 7, 2016.

- Oakeshott, Michael. Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. Liberty Press, 1991.

Image: Islamic State flag graffiti, St.-Romain-au-Mont-d'Or, Rhone-Alpes, France | Photo credit: Thierry Ehrmann / Flickr via Wikimedia Commons (CC)


e0adb11c-33fd-4afa-8cae-20780dc62970.jpgAuthor, Russell P. Johnson, is a PhD candidate in Philosophy of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He studies fear, disagreement, and why we talk past one another. His blog can be found at www.forthesakeofarguments.com.

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