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Google should turn its attention to battling Islamophobia

Google launched its Redirect program last year which subtly redirects potential online Islamist terrorists to sites with existing moderate Islamic narratives, a move emulated by other tech companies. This step should be applied to prevent Islamophobia too.

Google should turn its attention to battling Islamophobia
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Google launched its Redirect program last year which subtly redirects potential online Islamist terrorists to sites with existing moderate Islamic narratives, a move emulated by other tech companies. This step should be applied to prevent Islamophobia too.

Governmental inability to effectively halt and counter the massive online propaganda efforts of terrorist groups such as the so-called Islamic State (IS) has resulted in an increased reliance on private sector companies to curb their dominance online.

To this end, Google’s think-tank Jigsaw launched its Redirect program last year, a feature subsequently adopted by YouTube this year.

The program, which operates much like a targeted advertising campaign, regulated more than 1,700 key words frequently searched by Islamist extremists to divert them to pre-existing, anti-Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) playlists. For example, users were directed to videos of long lines of people waiting for food in Isis-controlled territory, a subtle dig at the group’s competency, which was designed to repel vulnerable individuals from the group.

The fact that the company used available content uploaded by Syrian citizens instead of commissioning videos specially for this purpose preserved the credibility of these videos.

While the efficacy of Internet solutions to counter extremism is not easily quantifiable, Jigsaw and its teams did unearth positive effects borne out by this program. For instance, the click rates on the suggested content were at least three times higher than those on commercial advertisements.

Similarly, results also revealed that these users spent an average of eight minutes on some of their videos, a statistic that is higher than the average viewing time of regular netizens.

Such efforts were reminiscent of Google’s anti-suicide redirect mechanism which diverted potential victims to helplines instead of sites showing how to commit suicide.

These efforts also come as part of a larger drive by influential tech companies such as Facebook and YouTube to combat extremism and negativity online, for which Google has been a major trendsetter.

In the past, Google’s search results constantly turned up anti-Semitic and misogynistic sites. Websites explaining how ‘Jews are evil’ or how ‘women had some degree of prostitution in them’, were the top results of searches related to the two broad communities resulting in hate crimes against them.

The tech giant finally set up a positive precedent last year when its ethics committee removed these negative search suggestions and results.

Unfortunately, the same treatment has not been accorded to the results related to Islam and Muslims, especially at a time when the machinations of Isis and Islamist terrorists have generated five times more coverage than other terrorists, producing negative sentiments towards the Muslim community, both online and offline.

Research has shown that queries related to Islam, terrorism and other related topics lead to questionable and oftentimes downright anti-Muslim propaganda websites.

One instance is the term ‘‘Taqiya’’, falsely translated by Islamophobes as lying to non-Muslims unconditionally (Taqiya in legal terms is the permission given to Muslims to conceal their religious identity if their lives are threatened on account of their faith).

Despite the presence of well researched academic content on this topic, search results lead users to websites that are factually incorrect.

These results lead to the demonisation of the community producing real time impacts that often go unnoticed.

The demonisation is especially present in countries with significant Muslim-minority populations, where they are likely to be targeted and used as scapegoats.

A study conducted by a prominent Google scientist and a big data specialist based out of Princeton in 2015 showcased the link between the results of such searches and anti-Islamic crimes in the United States, empirically demonstrating that the increased occurrences of these crimes reflect the sentiment of netizens expressed through Google searches.

Elsewhere, the impact of Facebook on real-time events was seen when fake news that proliferated on the platform during the last US election was shown to be a factor in Mr Donald Trump taking the presidency.

Consequently well-respected scholars, both inside and outside the Muslim community, such as Mr Omar Suleiman, an imam based out of Texas, have attempted to offer academically well-referenced content.

Their endeavours, however, are dwarfed in comparison to the onslaught of misinformation posted online by trolls and dedicated activists loosely termed as the ‘‘Islamophobia Industry’’.

In this regard, tech companies have a functional responsibility to update search algorithms and generate less inflammatory content rather than agenda-driven/erroneous sites.

If this responsibility is not fulfilled, the resulting Islamophobic hate crimes and attitudes can lead to increased marginalisation, a strong push factor towards the radicalisation of Muslims.

Singapore is also sensitive to the dangers of Islamophobia, with government leaders publicly warning about the threat it poses to the country and its social fabric.

As such, these tech giants with their global reach should prop up initiatives against Islamophobia similar to those countering Islamist extremism — even in more local contexts.

A starting point could be updating algorithms in local languages, such as Bahasa Malay/Indonesia, Thai, Tagalog and Mandarin, apart from English.

Furthermore, Google’s efforts will be aided if other tech giants (such as Facebook and YouTube) follow suit and embrace similar steps.

As countering negative search suggestions is already a part of these companies’ agenda, taking into consideration both spectrums of extremism will help reverse the tide of Internet hate.


Mohammed Sinan Siyech is a Research Analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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