Is redirecting people away from online violent content a moonshot?

I suppose that the literal definition of a ‘moonshot’ is the act of sending a rocket to the moon.  Interestingly, there is another set of metaphorical definitions I found online which include:

What then to make of a new project financed by the Canadian government to try to divert people from extremist content online by a UK firm called Moonshot?  It is clearly not an attempt to land a craft on the moon but is it ‘ground-breaking’ and devoid of risks and benefits?

The project, which will receive $1.5 million (Canadian) from the  Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence (CCCEPVE), is called ‘Canada Redirect’ and aims at preventing potential extremists in Canada from accessing harmful online propaganda by presenting them with alternative websites, videos and audio when they enter certain search terms online.  Moonshot CVE, based in London, claims that it is already using this approach in over a dozen countries.

What do I think of this idea (NB I used to work for Public Safety Canada before the awfully named CCCEPEV was launched so I have some experience in this field)?  I like it, in principle, with caveats.  Any initiative that seeks to redirect the young (and not so young) and curious away from violent material has to be a good thing.  Redirect Canada will “work with the logic of the internet and help to direct people who are looking for extremist content toward content that doesn’t necessarily contradict, but brings into question, what they’re looking for” according to the project director for Moonshot Micah Clark (full disclosure: he is a friend of mine).

There are, as always, limitations to what Moonshot is trying to achieve.  There is a vast difference between the mildly adventurous and the committed extremist and I am doubtful the program will work for the latter (in fairness, Moonshot says it can differentiate between the two and will focus on the former).  There are also probably privacy and freedom of expression issues (do extremists have the right to post material online and do citizens have the right to consume it?  What is ‘extremism’ after all?).  And then there is the evaluation aspect, i.e. how does Moonshot know that what it is doing is working and how does one measure how many individuals, if any, do not go down the pathway to violent extremism because Redirect eased them into a new direction?  Actually, evaluation is the Holy Grail of all CVE and PVE projects and I have been assured that all those who seek and receive public funds to do this work have metrics at the top of their to-do lists.

This approach is novel in that it moves away from what we have been doing – or trying to do is a better term – for years: remove content from the Internet and social media.  This is a thankless task imposed on companies such as Google, FaceBook, Twitter and others, sometimes with the threat of hefty fines in cases of non-compliance.  Taking down material is fraught with difficulties: the aforementioned free speech issue, timeliness, and the fact that objectionable material is usually re-posted within minutes, resulting in a never ending game of Whack-a-Mole.  At least Moonshot is not going down familiar, well-worn and yet not very efficient pathways.

I have been called critical of anything that smacks of CVE or PVE.  That is a bit unfair as I am trying to take a comprehensive look at what is being proposed, what its strengths and weaknesses are, and what challenges it will face.  I also cannot shake off my intelligence and security hat – that is what 30+ years in the business will do to you.  CSIS and its partners cannot and should not rely on any CVE or PVE effort to help determine risk level since any mistake or misdiagnosis that results  in a successful terrorist attack reverberates back on government agencies, not on the organisations who ‘do’ CVE and PVE.  There is also the uncomfortable reality that spies and cops need to see who is reading and reacting to violent material online to help them understand the extremist environment and build possible court cases.

In the end as I noted above I like the idea and think it is an interesting concept.  I look forward to hearing about its successes (and failures) but will wait before issuing any final evaluation.  After all, the proof of the CVE pudding is in the eating.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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