Google Official: Take ISIS Off the Open Web to Stop Its Propaganda Machine

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Militant Islamist fighters show the ISIS flag during a military parade along the streets of Raqqa, Syria, in June 2014. REUTERS

Google’s “head of ideas” said in a talk on Monday that the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) needs to be pushed off the open Web in order to sever its propaganda machine.

Speaking at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (aka Chatham House) in London, Jared Cohen, spoke about forcing ISIS into Tor—an open-source network used for anonymous communications—or the dark Web, where propagating its jihadist messages will be much more difficult than on public social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

“Success looks like ISIS being contained to the dark Web,” Cohen said.

Cohen, who oversees the Google Ideas department, which is creating tools to stop hackers and digital attackers, compared ISIS’s social media approach to email spammers. He said ISIS’s social media army is heavily bloated with fake accounts, giving the illusion that its legion of online supporters is bigger than they actually are.

“ISIS is the first terrorist organization to occupy and hold both physical territory and digital territory,” Cohen said.

How to defeat ISIS and how to stop it from propagating its ideas have been two of the most asked questions on the campaign trail in the presidential race. Hillary Clinton has urged Google and other Silicon Valley companies to “disrupt ISIS” and close down ISIS-supporting websites and social media accounts.

Silicon Valley has answered the call, albeit covertly, according to a Reuters report in December. While Facebook, Twitter and Google are actively shutting down portals for ISIS propaganda, sometimes bypassing formal protocols for faster results, they are doing it without much noise so they aren’t seen by their users as a tool of government.

Cohen warned that simply stopping ISIS’s online propaganda machine is not enough. “The mistake that we make is a mischaracterization of technology being synonymous with communications,” he said. “It leads to looking at this notion of countering extremist narratives online as some kind of panacea rather than a multifaceted challenge.”

While ISIS has the ignoble honor of being the first digitally savvy terrorist organization, Cohen said it’s just a sign of the times. Most of ISIS’s social media tactics are at a level of sophistication on par with most tech-savvy millennials in the West, he noted. Illicit organizations with successful online outreach will be the norm rather than the exception, he added

“I think a successor organization to ISIS seven years from now will make what ISIS is doing look like yesterday’s news,” Cohen said