ISIS and other extremist groups, as well as their online supporters, have continued to exploit and misuse Google’s platforms to disseminate propaganda material, despite the company having repeatedly announced increased measures to combat online extremism. On July 21, 2017, Google announced the launch of one such measure––its Redirect Method Pilot Program. The program is intended to target individuals searching for ISIS-related content on YouTube and direct them to counter-narrative videos, which try to undermine the messaging of extremist groups. The Counter Extremism Project (CEP) monitors and tracks ISIS and other terrorist organizations’ material on YouTube. Between April 3 and April 4, 2018, CEP reviewed a total of 710 YouTube videos for extremist and counter-narrative content. The result of CEP’s searches highlights the extent of the enduring problem of terrorist content on YouTube and undermines claims touting the efficacy of the company’s efforts to combat online extremism.
Extremist propaganda––including violent propaganda––is still readily accessible on YouTube. Out of the 710 videos manually reviewed and analyzed by CEP, 53 videos (more than 7.4%) contained extremist content. Out of those videos, 25 included content that was explicitly violent or gory. However, official ISIS propaganda is fairly difficult to find. Only 4 videos found were official ISIS propaganda releases, while 18––over four times as many––were official propaganda releases from non-ISIS extremist groups, and the remaining 31 videos were unofficial propaganda videos. These numbers suggest that although YouTube may have improved its takedown practices, especially for ISIS videos, terrorist networks and their supporters still employ the platform to spread official propaganda videos and violent content.
Meanwhile, Google’s efforts to promote counter-narrative content appear to be inconsistent and insufficient. For the 710 videos checked, CEP was over three times more likely to encounter extremist material than counter-narratives. 14 out of 15 total counter-narrative videos were found in the search results for two terms that Google’s Redirect Method specified were targeted for counter-narrative messaging––“الدولة الإسلامية” (“Islamic State” in Arabic) and its English transliteration, “Al Dawla Al Islameyah.” However, no counter-narrative material was found in the search results for “باقية و تتمدد” (“Remaining and Expanding” in Arabic) or its English transliteration, “Baqiyah wa Tatamadad,” though they are also terms that Google’s Redirect Method specified were targeted for counter-narrative messaging. Furthermore, Google’s efforts to remove extremist content and promote counter-narrative messaging do not appear to be equal between unfiltered and filtered searches. Though extremist content was not found in the unfiltered search for “الدولة الإسلامية” (“Islamic State” in Arabic), it was easily found when filters were applied.
YouTube’s efforts to combat terrorist content on its platform appear to be primarily targeted at ISIS, but the company does not seem to have made the same efforts to target non-ISIS terrorist and extremist content. CEP found nearly four times more official non-ISIS extremist content than official ISIS content, but found only one counter-narrative video targeted at a non-ISIS extremist group. CEP encourages YouTube to focus on ensuring a more consistent and encompassing application of counter-narrative messaging, as well as the removal of all extremist and terrorist material from its platforms, in line with YouTube’s own public statements and company policy.
Extremist propaganda––including violent propaganda––is still readily accessible on YouTube. Meanwhile, Google’s efforts to promote counter-narrative content appear to be inconsistent and insufficient.