How Big Data Will Stop Violent Extremism

Mohamed Bouhlel Nice Attack
People walk next to floral tributes, notes and candles placed in the road for victims of the Bastille Day attack, Nice, France, July 20. Prosecutors said Thursday that the truck attack had been planned with accomplices for months. Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images

Orlando. Baghdad. Nice. Dhaka. Munich. Normandy. The wave of attacks sweeping across the world feels unstoppable, yet we may be the final generation to deal with this problem. Using the same disruptive technology that has overturned the music, hotel and taxi industries, we could solve the problems of violenct extremism in one generation.

This is a bold claim at a time when many are tempted to despair. After billions of dollars, tens of thousands of lives lost and multiple failed wars, we seem no closer to slowing the spread of violent extremism.

There are as many reasons people join extremist groups as there are extremists. Some join out of a sense of duty, others to give their lives meaning. Mental health can play a factor; in fact Moonshot CVE— a tech startup specializing in countering violent extremism— has found those vulnerable to extremism are disproportionately likely to consume content related to depression, hopelessness and anxiety.

Although we can (and should) tighten access to firearms and other weapons, trucks and knives are all that extremists need to cause mayhem, and they are not in short supply. The real struggle to defeat extremism exists within the minds of our fellow citizens and the willingness to carry out these attacks is the true bottleneck. That’s where our efforts must be focused.

With that in mind, in order to solve terrorism we need to be able to do three things:

  1. Identify those at risk of joining extremist organizations;

  2. Provide these people with the support they need, with each support package tailored specifically to that one individual;

  3. Fund these efforts so they sit outside the remit of government.

Given the highly tailored personal interventions required, in a linear world this problem would indeed be unsolvable. But we no longer live in a linear world: we live in a world shaped by exponential growth, disruptive technology and Moore’s Law—very year we produce more computing power than the sum of all previous years. It is Moore’s Law that allows each of us to carry a supercomputer in our pockets and has brought driverless cars from the pages of science fiction to our roads. The world's largest taxi company, Uber, owns no vehicles. The world's most popular media owner creates no content—that’s Facebook. And the world's largest accommodation provider—Airbnb—owns no real estate. The rules have changed utterly, and with that comes the power to solve previously unsolvable problems.

Powerful artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming increasingly common and there are efforts afoot to democratize and provide open source access to this technology. All of us have a digital footprint that can be used to infer the likelihood of a given future behaviour. Vulnerable people leave clues online that indicate potential involvement in extremism— videos watched, Facebook pages liked or Twitter accounts followed . AI’s exceptional pattern-deducing abilities can pick up those clues and help us identify people at risk. Moonshot CVE is already developing this capability. We create methodologies to do this and help our clients—including governments and technology companies—to respond effectively to all forms of extremism. However, we propose this data should be used not to lock people up or to place them on watchlists, but to change their minds.

A pilot study, funded by Curtin University in Australia, indicated that extremists receiving contact from trained professionals will often respond positively and engage in personal conversations around what is driving them. This contact should draw on the experience of the emerging field of online counselling and lead to tailored solutions as unique as the individuals themselves: mental health support; jobs and training; religious guidance.

Initially, such an approach should dr aw on the expertise of former extremists , survivors of extremism and the many highly specialized organizations that currently exist to do this type of work. In order to meet the challenge tens of thousands more counsellors and social workers will need to be brought into the field. This means scaling up traditional social work to reach into the laptops, tablets, and mobile phones of tens of thousands of vulnerable individuals flirting with extremist ideas.

How to fund and staff efforts like this? Extremist attacks are perpetrated by a tiny minority of people as the reaction after each attack demonstrates—particularly in reaction online, as the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag showed after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The challenge is how to harness that energy to change things.

Again, this is where technology comes in. By some estimates crowdfunding could swell to be a $300 billion industry, proving that there’s more than enough capital around to fund intervention efforts. By applying the right technology, Airbnb and Uber made cab drivers and hoteliers out of hundreds of thousands of people. The same methods could be used to exponentially increase the number of people involved in countering extremism and radicalization.

By marrying big data with personal empathy, our generation can starve extremist organisations of their ability to recruit, and they will wither on the vine and die.

Ross Frenett is co-founder of Moonshot CVE, a startup specializing in countering violent extremism.

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