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Exclusive: ‘Redirecting' extremists away from radical content

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo / Axios

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It’s no secret that the internet is a fertile recruiting ground for extremists of all types. But a five-month effort trying to combat extremism shows promise in getting would-be white nationalist and ISIS sympathizers to click away from radical content.

Driving the news: Moonshot CVE, an anti-extremist consultancy, ran ads directed at users searching for propagandist torture videos and using searches like "how to join ISIS" or "kill all the Jews." Working in partnership with the Gen Next Foundation and the Google run incubator Jigsaw, Moonshot was able to divert 1,300 at-risk Google searchers to counter-narratives debunking propaganda or presenting an alternate worldview.

Why it matters: The internet is a major recruitment and organizational tool for extremist groups. Rather than count on websites to police themselves, Moonshot aims to temper extremists' ability to find that content. Based on Moonshot's numbers, there's reason to hope that someone can head would-be extremists off at the pass or even direct them to help, including mental health programs, an option they tested.

The effect: Moonshot’s redirecting strategy worked on 1,300 people out of 56,000 attempts. That's a fairly strong outcome — 20% more effective than the average ad on Google search.

The mental health option: Moonshot also experimented with offering ads for mental health services to those searching for extremist content. It appears to be a viable option. Their targets were 48% more likely to click on an add for psychiatric support than a control group. Those searching for the most violent content clicked on the ad 115% more often.

The big picture: Redirecting a person once does not inherently mean they will be dissuaded from seeking extremist material again. However, many former extremists say that mental health and social work were critical to leave violent movements. But while Moonshot is still tinkering with the content on the other end of their ads, it all means nothing if the ads don't work — which they appear to.