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Google's Next Mission: Fighting Violent Extremism

Google's new think tank will host a summit on what makes some youths join radical groups and what makes others turn away.

Neo-Nazi groups and al Qaeda might not seem to have much in common, but they do in one key respect: their recruits tend to be very young. The head of Google’s new think tank, Jared Cohen, believes there might be some common reasons why young people are drawn to violent extremist groups, no matter their ideological or philosophical bent. So this summer, Cohen is spearheading a conference, in Dublin, Ireland, to explore what it is that draws young people to these groups and what can be done to redirect them.

Technology, of course, is playing a role both in recruiting members to extremist groups, as well as fueling pro-democracy and other movements—and that’s where Google’s interest lies. "Technology is a part of every challenge in the world, and a part of every solution," Cohen tells Fast Company. "To the extent that we can bring that technology expertise, and mesh it with the Council on Foreign Relations’ academic expertise—and mesh all of that with the expertise of those who have had these experiences—that's a valuable network to explore these questions."

Cohen is the former State Department staffer who is best known for his efforts to bring technology into the country’s diplomatic efforts. But he was originally hired by Condaleezza Rice back in 2006 for a different—though related—purpose: to help Foggy Bottom better understand Middle Eastern youths (many of whom were big technology adopters) and how they could best "deradicalized." Last fall, Cohen joined Google as head of its nascent Google Ideas, which the company is labeling a "think/do tank."

This summer’s conference, "Summit Against Violent Extremism," takes place June 26-29 and will bring together about 50 former members of extremist groups—including former neo-Nazis, Muslim fundamentalists, and U.S. gang members—along with another 200 representatives from civil society organizations, academia, private corporations, and victims groups. The hope is to identify some common factors that cause young people to join violent organizations, and to form a network of people working on the issue who can collaborate going forward.

"With more than 50% of the world’s population under the age of thirty and the vast majority of those characterized as 'at risk,' socially, economically, or both, an oversupply exists of young people susceptible to recruitment by the extremist religious or ideological group closest to them in identity or proximity," Cohen wrote on the blog of the Council on Foreign Relations, the event’s co-host.

One of the technologies where extremism is playing out these days is in Google’s own backyard. While citizen empowerment movements have made use of YouTube to broadcast their messages, so have Terrorist and other groups. Just this week, anti-Hamas extremists kidnapped an Italian peace activist and posted their hostage video to YouTube first before eventually murdering him. YouTube has been criticized in the past for not removing violent videos quick enough. But Cohen says the conference is looking at the root causes that prompt a young person to join one of the groups in the first place. "There are a lot of different dimensions to this challenge," he says. "It’s important not to conflate everything."

See also: Google Grabs State Dept. Star Jared Cohen for Foreign Policy "Think/Do Tank"

[Image: Aljazeera English]

E.B. Boyd is's Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter. Email.

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  • Daniel Malikov

    Some religions have a concept of killing people as punishment for sin. But, there are no religions that list not killing as a sin, even if one is ordered to kill by a religious leader. Therefore, if one kills, it's only because he wants to, because he is a beast, not a human being. There is no reason to kill in modern world.

    I will not rob anyone of hope, and one has hope as long as he lives. Taking someone out of this world leaves no opportunity for that person to become better, to learn to love, to learn to see the beauty, to get richer and enrich the world. I will not kill.

    Join me on facebook

    Together, socially and organized, making it unfashionable, is the only way to reject violence.

  • smith aa

    Let put Hawaiian Mafia family with the terrorist group thos who have friend or family working in Lawenforcement. afteall #1 export from Hawaii is grass their friends or dope dealers was asking for weapon of mass destruction 2 diffrent group but the drug connection come back to mafia kids

  • Jim Hartzfeld

    I am building on and tempering Robert Jacobson's comment below. I'm starting a new thread not to be buried under his comment.

    In general, it seems like society is polarizing (becoming more extreme) in many ways: economics, philosophy, politics, religion, etc. Closer to home, I submit that the mind set behind the "divine right of capital" philosophy that dominates the American economy today would be considered as extreme in the eyes of its founding fathers (Adam Smith, etc.) as the "Extremists" cited above. Obviously, the difference is the tactics used by the marginalized members of society against those in control. (I wouldn't dare link these modern terrorist behaviors with that of colonial libertarians of the 18th-20th centuries) I don't want this to sound like I condone terrorism or physical violence. I abhor it.

    I thing that Google's research could be much more valuable if it focused on the conditions that polarize society rather than the tactics used by the disaffected that feel locked in helpless circumstances by the polarization. To take the idea even further (and potentially more valuable), what are the successful conditions that bring divergent mindsets together. Their research seems like studying why insane chemotherapy patients use Rogaine to treat their hair loss while ignoring the cancer at the source of the problem. (I hear Rogaine is a great product. Apologies to its makers.)

    We seem to pay more attention to and therefore reinforce the narratives (media, political, personal) that highlight and exaggerate our differences, rather than our commonalities. With 7 billion living humans, headed to 9, this splintering portends disaster for us all, including the "winners" in this boxing match of ideas. I believe Google's great service would be to study this broader, general trend looking for its characteristics in everyone including ourselves (relatively democratic western liberal market societies) as well as in those that are willing to sacrifice their lives to challenge our paradigms.

  • Daryle Hier

    Google fighting violence? Yeah right. They should have thought of that before helping terrorist over throw a government. They helped socialist aid radical Islamist who now have a major majority referendum to make Egypt the next Iran. Good work. How about going back to making search engines better.

  • mrggfep

    Young people are inpatient, they want change instantly, they have nothing to lose(no career, no house, no wife, often no Kids), and the youth have not been worn down by years or trying to make changes by going through the proper channels, youth are not afraid... The Youth see that they system is slow and broken and often exists to prepetuate injustice... I could go on... but all those things mean violence and/or extremism are more in line with how youth think change should come... fast and whether you old people like it or not.

  • Chris Reich

    Without impatient "young people", nothing would ever change. We'd still be in Vietnam. It's the shrinking voice of youth---partially their own fault through complacency---that keeps the U.S. in the absurd war in Afghanistan chasing a bogeyman we will never defeat with bullets.

    Chris Reich

  • mrggfep

    I just read that and the tone may seem as if I support violent extremisn.. .that is not the case, I was just saying those are some reasons other than being influenced by religious fanatics, or loonies who just want to overthrow the govt. so that they don't have to pay taxes on their liquor and loose women...

  • Michael Brown

    There is only one real solution to violent extremism. No one wants to hear it, beleive it, act on it, or live it.

  • Bob Jacobson

    PS I found this to be a telling comment in the article: "Terrorist and other groups have made use of YouTube to broadcast their messages--as, indeed, have citizen empowerment movements." How does one draw the difference between terrorism and empowermen? Isn't it just a matter of who is in charge?

  • Bob Jacobson

    "Charity begins at home." Before tackling the problem of extremism overseas, it would seem appropriate for Google to study carefully and assist in remediating extremism at home, in the USA.

    The number of armed militias in America, according to the SPLC, has grown by a factor of 20 in the last few years.

    The violent acts committed against doctors providing abortions has eliminated that option for women in almost half the United States.

    Over one-half of all American children here are subject to physical, psychological, or social abuse. Many women and girls suffer this abuse their entire lives.

    Our politics are a shambles due to media-assisted hate-mongering.

    And then, of course, there is that greatest terrorism of all, the ideology of everyone for his or her own self combined with a foolish national exceptionalism, resulting in a pervasive rot that produced Wall Street as we now know it to be, a band of thieves and predators, financial terrorists who have ruined the lives of countless millions, if not billions, around the world.

    That, and our three wars raging with dozens of quiet battles -- each leading to death and destruction -- in hotspots around the world.

    Google should consider how much more good it could do helping to mitigate native terrorism and terroristic acts right here at home. That would be true philanthropy.