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 FastCompany.com's Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter. Email.