Moonshot CVE: The company using adverts to counter extremism

The London-based tech firm is helping to redirect users from harmful content online

Vidhya Ramalingam,  co-founder of Moonshot CVE. Courtesy Moonshot CVE
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From those drawn to ISIS and the far-right, to others deciding whether to vaccinate their children, Moonshot CVE is diverting social media users from dangerous views.

The London-based technology social enterprise, invented the "Redirect Method" in 2017, which involves delivering targeted advertising to Google and social media users searching for certain extremism-linked keywords.

Advertisements then link to neutral or counter narratives provided by trusted figures, citizen journalists and defectors from the searched group on YouTube playlists and other sites.

Developed with Google’s Jigsaw incubator in 2016, the method has grown and adapted as it has been applied, sparking Moonshot’s success as a corporate entity and funding new types of research.

The company, which was founded by Vidhya Ramalingam and Ross Frenett, has developed an approach to battling extremist narratives online by centring on a belief that removal is not always the answer. Instead, delivering a convincing counter-narrative can prove just as effective at steering users away from extremist organisations.

“How we come at this work is with the idea that everyone has the ability to change” said Teresa Barros-Bailey, an analyst at Moonshot CVE, who presented her work to academics and policy makers at the Terrorism and Social Media conference in Swansea, UK on Tuesday.

As the group is a social enterprise, it is not only able to do work on behalf of its clients, but invests profits into trial and error projects to see which methods work, and research groups and projects that they would usually struggle to secure funding for.

"There are so many different ways to come at countering violent extremism and so many different tools and methodologies that we can trial and can fail," she told The National. "But that's the point of our name, right?

“It is to try these different ways. If they work great, how can they work better? How can we tweak them if they don't work, what does that mean? How can we tweak them so that maybe next time they can work a little bit more efficiently, in a little bit more effectively?”

A discovery which informs much of the work Moonshot now does came about via internal funding of a "moonshot" idea says Ms Barros Bailey, hence the name.

In 2017, the company paired with the Gen Next Foundation to test whether violent far right and Islamic extremists are more likely to engage with mental health content than a comparison group.

It found that far-right audiences are 48 per cent more likely to click on mental health advertisements and Islamic extremists were 47 per cent more likely.

“One of our learnings from the projects that we have implemented to date is that it's not all about ideology," said Franz Josef Berger, a manager at the firm.

“A lot of the drivers of radicalisation are individual vulnerabilities of people. And that's something that we can detect with our social media analysis.”

Ross Frenett, co-founder of Moonshot CVE. Courtesy Moonshot CVE
Ross Frenett, co-founder of Moonshot CVE. Courtesy Moonshot CVE

This realisation makes the company’s research and action applicable to issues beyond dealing with those drawn to big ticket extremists such as ISIS and the US far-right.

The team is also looking into anti-Muslim violence led online by monks in Myanmar, dissident republicanism in Northern Ireland and anti-vaccine messaging as topics ripe for Moonshot’s intervention.

“This is not just something that plagues one community and it's something that is very much worldwide and operating in a variety of different countries,” said Ms Barros-Bailey.

Importantly, this isn’t an ivory tower, western-led exercise. For every country the team operates in, it employs and consults local experts and visits, said Mr Berger.

Moonshot is currently working in 28 countries on over 70 projects, devising new ways to counter extremist narratives.

As well as redirecting users to content with the potential to change their outlook, the group also tracks social media trends, particularly in the wake of terror attacks or international incidents.

After the Christchurch shootings, the group found the songs the shooter played in the video of the attack saw an over 100 per cent increase in plays and published a list of the most used search terms in relation to the attack.

Its latest partnership is with the US-based Anti-Defamation League, using the Redirect Method to fight the far-right. ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblat said his organisation had been inspired by Moonshot’s pilot project on Islamic extremism and how it could apply elsewhere.

“This is just a pilot project, and I have no illusions that it’s going to alone solve the problem,” says ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt. “But a model developed on the basis of interviews with ISIS defectors and how they were sort of radicalised – it makes sense to try to use it to tackle other types of violent extremist discourses. Whatever we can do to try to neutralise this threat before it takes hold I think is worth a try.”