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Experts address the “blind spot” in extremist web content

This month the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language (CASL) hosted experts from the Center on Religion and Geopolitics at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation at START Headquarters.

Mubaraz Ahmed, analyst for the Center on Religion and Geopolitics focusing on the Middle East and North Africa, alongside Peter Welby, Managing Editor for the Center on Religion and Geopolitics, and fellow analyst Ruwan Rujouleh, presented findings on the accessibility of extremist content through basic search engines such as Google.

Concerned with the relative ease in which a simple search can lead to extremist content, the researchers aimed to expand the focus of web radicalization from the narrow scope of social media to the broader span of search engines. Ahmed recognized this “blind spot” in contemporary research and intends to fill the knowledge gap with this new report. The report examined the average monthly number of global searches and regional search frequencies conducted in Google for 287 Arabic and English keywords relating to violent and non-violent extremism. Further analysis was then conducted within the search results for 47 of the relevant keywords to understand placement of extremist and counter-narrative content.

According to the study, each month nearly half a million Google searches with the selected keywords led to extremist material: 44 percent violent, 36 percent non-violent and 20 percent political Islamist content. The data from Digitalis shows evidence that inbound links help to boost search engine optimization (SEO) containing extremist content because they receive a high number of links into their site allowing it to appear higher on search engine results pages (SERPs).

In his meeting at START, Welby acknowledged the ethical dilemma of strictly removing the content and placed a stronger emphasis on boosting the counter-narratives that already exist. Mubaraz added that the solution is not to release more counter-narratives but rather target specific ideologies and geographic regions through existing counter-narratives. After analyzing 47 keyword SERPs, the researchers found that counter-narrative content exceeded extremist material in 11 percent of the results generated.

The report includes several policy recommendations for governments, technology companies, civil society groups and religious organizations to combat extremist content. The recommendations include: calling for governments to create a global taskforce guided by experts in an array of fields, technology companies to improve SEO to shift the balance and civil society groups to collaborate with both groups to counter extremist content.

The findings can be found in the report “A War of Keywords” by Mubaraz Ahmed and Fred Lloyd George.

The research was supported by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and Digitalis.