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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Google wants to fight extremism, but it needs to understand it first

Google's Jared Cohen, left, and Jim Lindsay of the Council of Foreign Relations, speak to the media during a news conference at the Summit Against Violent Extremism in Dublin, Ireland, on Monday. Photo: AP Photo/Peter Morrison

The world can mark the entrance of a new player in the field of counterterrorism: Google. Just winding down in Dublin, Ireland, is the Summit Against Violence Extremism (SAVE), an anti-extremism event co-sponsored by Google Ideas, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Tribeca Film Festival, and it is a signature effort by Google honcho Eric Schmidt to use technology to drive deradicalization around the world.

However noble its intentions, SAVE is predicated on some questionable assumptions. According to its website, the group states that “radicalization is less of a religious and ideological issue and more about the challenges faced by youth around the world: need for empowerment, an outlet for adventure, a sense of purpose and belonging, and a meaningful identity.”

While such motivations are undoubtedly a motivation for extreme behavior, forming a global program to combat radicalization requires some understanding of what you are combating. For starters, there is no consensus about ignoring ideology when trying to combat radicalization — especially religious radicalization. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has argued forcefully that “within Islamism, one’s behavior is clearly and unequivocally controlled by ideology.”

I disagree with Gartenstein-Ross. It was perhaps a semantic argument, but I thought the constraints faced by potential extremists — social and peer pressure, familial expectations, economic pressures, and so on — were a better way of explaining the path to violent radicalization than just looking at ideology. Gartenstein-Ross, rightly, responded that the preponderance of certain ideologues among captured jihadists, like the extremist Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, indicates that the specific ideas and belief systems promoted by extremist groups play a part in radicalization.

The challenge, and this is where Gartenstein-Ross and I left our argument, is that there are just not enough data out there to conclusively say why this person becomes radicalized. It could be ideology. It could be a longing for adventure — as SAVE seems to think.

The trouble with SAVE’s approach to the problem of violent extremism (beyond lavish events in Western European capitals staffed with ex-gang members, skinheads and Islamists) is that it basically plays into the liberal assumptions of its backers. As humans, we tend to seek confirmation of our beliefs and desires and to ignore contrasting information, so when a bunch of technology gurus look at the problem of violent extremism, they will naturally think ideas can’t really be behind violent extremism, and that somehow there must be a technological solution.

Of course, it would be worth pondering whether the spread of technological sophistication throughout the world — I get better cell reception in the mountains of Afghanistan than in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.  – has had any effect on the ability of extremists to act out violently. According to a report (pdf) my think tank, The American Security Project, released last month, acts of Islamist terrorism outside Iraq and Afghanistan are at an all-time high, as is the ability of al Qaeda franchises around the world to operate independently of the old core group in Pakistan. Has technology played a role in empowering these terrorist groups as much as SAVE wants it to empower their deradicalization?

SAVE doesn’t say if technology can contribute to radicalization, but we can guess it does. It’s far easier for extremists to organize, raise money and plan acts of violence using technology. Technology lets them spread their influence over a far wider space than they could without cell phones and the Internet. So how will SAVE use technology to combat that? The extremism they want to combat isn’t an extremism of technology, but an extremism of ideas inspiring action. Technology makes it easier to spread ideas and to perform actions. But if your ideas are already so irrational as to inspire horrific acts of violence, will a little more technology, a little more empowerment and adventure, really undermine that? I doubt it.

But beyond its conceptual issues, does SAVE have a chance of, umm, saving anybody? Violent extremism has complex causes — it can be as much a symptom of social isolation as a reaction against government oppression. For Google Ideas to casually mix the two as if they’re no different, as if they can both be solved with something called “empowerment,” demonstrates a pretty alarming, starry-eyed innocence of a phenomenon so complex.

Saudi Arabia has been experimenting with a deradicalization program since about 2004 or so. Rather than hosting summits and cataloging those who have rejected violent extremism, the Saudis focus on ideology — something Google rejects — and also its own security services, whose behavior in some cases has led to further radicalization. It’s certainly not perfect, with a recidivism rate of up to 20 percent. But it still takes 80 to 90 percent of the people it treats out of the violent extremist scene. In its network of experts and “formers,” SAVE has no Saudis on its staff to offer advice.

There’s always the chance that Google Ideas will somehow do what lavishly funded government and academic programs haven’t been able to do the last 20 years and find a way to use technology and hand-holding to end violent extremism. But I don’t think they can or will. The vision they present — that underneath all the talk, extremism is extremism regardless of form — is so simplistic that it’s almost insulting. To argue that angry young people violently lashing out can be assuaged with, say, Google products and speaking their minds online, is simply naïve.

Google Ideas’ efforts would be better spent funding empirical studies of radicalization, and just as important empirical studies of counter-radicalization programs — establishing, in other words, a baseline from which to work, instead of jumping into a topic it so clearly misunderstands.