Period pieces and historical dramas have always captivated me. Who haven’t they? And while previously it’s been the finely buttoned gowns or antiquated rules of courtship, lately there’s been another facet of old that’s caught my attention: warfare.
What must it have been like, for example, when you could easily spot your enemy coming over the next hill? His ships a physical presence. A messengered envoy with a scroll of demands.
Still pretty scary, of course. The ability to fear isn’t limited by century and this is in no way a romance of any kind of terror. Yet, no one would deny that terror feels so much bigger today. There’s a war on it, after all; thanks to the internet, modern-day enemies don’t need to send a squire on horseback. They sit aglow in blue light, typing spells before black mirrors and widening their reach beyond kingdom and sea.
All it takes is a click.
Which is why I’m incredibly fascinated by platforms like Jigsaw, a unit within Alphabet that is addressing this intersection of terrorism and internet. Its name is a nod to how solving global security actually isn’t as simple as a click, but as my chat below with Jigsaw’s Director of Research and Development, Yasmin Green, reveals, it is a vital piece of the puzzle.
Nicole Ziza Bauer: For those who don’t know about Jigsaw, how would you sum up what you do and how you do it?
Yasmin Green: We use technology to make the world a safer place. We build tools and products that protect people from some of the biggest threats we face today, including online hate mobs, censorship, cyberattacks and radicalization.
NZB: Jigsaw’s Redirect Method is really fascinating: using online advertising techniques to subvert new terror recruits. Can you explain a bit how that works and how successful it’s been so far?
YG: The Redirect Method uses targeted advertising and existing YouTube videos to tackle online radicalization. It focuses on the slice of ISIS’ audience that is most susceptible to its messaging and redirects them towards curated YouTube videos debunking ISIS recruiting themes.
In the 8-week pilot of the Redirect Method, 300,000 individuals at-risk of radicalization were directed to videos that they watched for more than half a million minutes. That’s the equivalent of you sitting down at your laptop watching videos for an entire year (without a break).
NZB: What are key indicators for distinguishing an online user as a potential terror recruit? How do you determine the content that’s best for “redirecting” them?
YG: The ads are targeted based on what you do, not who you are. The thousands of keywords that comprise the ad campaigns are generated through consulting experts on radicalization, including actual defectors from ISIS, and include supporter slogans, terms in ISIS propaganda material and excerpts from extremist sermons.
Once redirected, individuals see a playlist relevant to them: if an Internet user is researching a career in nursing within the Caliphate, she may be directed to citizen journalism videos about the state of ISIS’s hospitals; if someone is searching for sermons about ISIS’ religious legitimacy, he may arrive on a video featuring a moderate cleric advocating against violence.
NZB: If there are known ways that terror cells operate online, why can’t governments just go in and shut them down? Cut off internet access, etc.?
YG: You’re right that law enforcement and intelligence services pursue terrorist groups online, they make arrests and thwart plots. At Jigsaw, rather than responding to terror cells, we want to prevent individuals from being radicalized in the first place. We know from interviewing ISIS recruits, that more information earlier in the radicalization process could have changed their minds; so our bias is towards more information (not less).
NZB: Was counterterrorism always an interest for you or did the desire to work in that field evolve over time?
YG: I’m fascinated by the intersection between technology and geopolitics, and I’ve always been interested in problems that can be solved through access to information. For the past 7 years, since the founding of Jigsaw, we’ve been exploring how information can help vulnerable people around the world. With ISIS becoming the first terrorist organization to thrive in both the physical and digital arenas, the challenge of online radicalization came into focus for the team and for me personally.
I’m fascinated by the intersection between technology and geopolitics, and I’ve always been interested in problems that can be solved through access to information.
NZB: For someone who wants to follow in your footsteps, in either a counterterror or humanitarian capacity, what would your advice to them be?
YG: Explore the nexuses. Join forces with people who share your passions and have wildly different perspectives and capabilities. Any hope we have of addressing seemingly intractable problems is based on breaking down silos.
Jigsaw is a fully interdisciplinary organization — which is contrary to misconceptions about the tech sector that it’s only engineers. Our team comprises engineers, AI scientists, cyber security researchers, policy experts, designers, ethnographers and yes, marketers. And because of this interdisciplinary approach, we’re able to focus not just on the technical aspects of the problems we examine, but also the human elements that are an essential part of our solutions.
NZB: Offline, I’ve read that you’re an art dealer. What inspired that hobby?
YG: My husband Adam is an artist, and we consume, curate and critique art together. In 2016, we also teamed up to produce the psychedelic papier-mâché art feature film Adam Green’s Aladdin.
NZB: What would we be surprised to know about you?
YG: I represented England in the National Under 16s Basketball Team (shooting guard, killer 3 point shot, and very respectable crossover).