Research & Analysis

Our team consistently produces timely and accurate analyses and threat assessments on the challenges posed by violent non-state actors, terrorist groups, organized crime, human trafficking organizations, disinformation, and other defining national and international security issues.

Our analytic products rely on a number of methods, including highly rigorous qualitative analysis, social network analysis, social media analysis, sentiment analysis, and predictive analysis using machine learning.

Valens also collaborates with other entities in the field. See below to learn more about Valens’ contributions to the Redirect Method, a project led by Jigsaw, Google’s tech incubator/think-tank.

The Client: Jigsaw, Google’s tech incubator-slash-think-tank, focuses on emerging threats in the online space, including disinformation, censorship, harassment, and violent extremism. Jigsaw’s work involves determining how technology can be used as a force for good and tackling consequential digital challenges with forward-thinking solutions.

The Challenge: It is late 2015, and the jihadist militant group known as the Islamic State (ISIS) has turned social media into one of its most far-reaching weapons. Aggressively recruiting followers across the globe, ISIS uses major content platforms to publicize atrocities like beheadings and immolations and spur its audience to violent action. ISIS’s sophisticated propaganda operation is drawing tens of thousands of militant recruits to the Iraq-Syria theater, and observers agree that ISIS is running a social media campaign that eclipses that of major Fortune 500 companies.

Social media giants Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube had yet to commit to institutional takedowns of ISIS content. There was a demonstrable need to find a way to counter ISIS’s propaganda in the absence of these takedowns. Jigsaw formulated a plan to use YouTube’s ad space to redirect viewers from dangerous ISIS content to material that would provide them with a different side of the story. That’s where Valens entered the picture.

The Solution: Jigsaw created a program that combines Google’s advertising algorithms and YouTube’s curated content to target aspiring ISIS recruits. This program is called the Redirect Method.

The Redirect Method latches targeted ads onto pre-flagged keywords and phrases affiliated with users searching for ISIS content. When a user searches for these terms, Redirect Method content pops up as well, accompanied by text that is neutral in tone, such as: “Learn the Truth About the Caliphate.” Users who click through are taken to a playlist of videos that are similarly neutral in title, but that provide a more objective and critical assessment of ISIS than does ISIS’s propaganda.

Valens Global contributed to Jigsaw’s approach to digital counter-extremism by comprehensively mapping the major themes of ISIS’s propaganda, and similarly mapping the counter-ISIS narrative space on YouTube to allow effective curation of videos that can help users escape from the rabbit hole of pro-ISIS content.

The Results:

Jigsaw used Valens’s research and analysis to develop the Redirect Method. A 2016 Wired article examined the early Redirect Method efforts in detail:

“These are people making decisions based on partial, bad information,” says [Yasmin Green, Jigsaw’s director of research and development]. “We can affect the problem of foreign fighters joining the Islamic State by arming individuals with more and better information.” She describes the campaign’s work as a kind of extension of Google’s core mission “to make the world’s information accessible and useful.” Perhaps one of world’s most dangerous problems of ignorance and indoctrination can be solved in part by doing what Google does best: Helping people find what they most need to see.

Measuring the actual effects of the campaign in dissuading ISIS recruits isn’t easy. But Jigsaw and its partners found that they at least captured searchers’ attention. The clickthrough rates on some of the ads were more than 9 percent, they say, compared with averages around 2 or 3 percent in the average Google keyword advertising campaign. They also discovered that the hundreds of thousands of searchers spent a total of half a million minutes watching the videos they collected, with the most effective videos getting as much as 8 minutes and 20 seconds average viewing time.

The results, in a pilot project Jigsaw ran early this year, were surprisingly effective: Over the course of about two months, more than 300,000 people were drawn to the anti-ISIS YouTube channels. Searchers actually clicked on Jigsaw’s three or four times more often than a typical ad campaign. Those who clicked spent more than twice as long viewing the most effective playlists than the best estimates of how long people view YouTube as a whole.

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