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Politics Ottawa launches $1.5-million project that will use online ads to try to prevent radicalization

The federal government is launching a $1.5-million project that will use internet advertising tools to redirect people searching for extremist content online to material that challenges radical and violent ideologies.

The project, “Canada Redirect,” will be announced Tuesday and will be overseen by Moonshot CVE, a London-based technology company that develops tools to counter violent extremism. Moonshot CVE will use its “redirect method,” already operating in more than a dozen countries, to prevent 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.

“Rather than trying to tackle the problem of extremism on the internet by just shutting things down, we 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,” said Micah Clark, program director at Moonshot CVE.

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For example, Mr. Clark pointed to his firm’s work redirecting online searches for Islamic State propaganda. When an individual conducts a search for an Islamic State nasheed – a traditional Islamic song repurposed by the terrorist group to glorify its activities – Moonshot CVE uses readily available search engine advertising tools to promote peaceful nasheeds in the search results.

The British firm will consult with experts in the field of countering violent extremism in Canada to create a list of potential search terms. It will then launch an advertising campaign for those terms in widely used search engines such as Google.

Brett Kubicek, the research manager at the Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence – the government initiative funding Canada Redirect – said the online tool will be able to detect different levels of risk among those searching for extremist content and activate ads appropriately.

“Part of what the method does is say, ‘Okay, does this look like somebody who is just curious or does this look like somebody who is more in the committing harm phase?’ They [Moonshot CVE] have different levels of risk. So if somebody’s just curious, it may not even trigger the method,” Mr. Kubicek said.

However, if an individual demonstrates a higher level of interest in certain extremist ideologies, the benign ads will show up in their search results.

The project will target search terms that encourage violence against others, including those linked to terrorist, white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.

“We see some pretty substantial traffic from the violent far right, like the very farthest white supremacy or neo-Nazi kind of thing,” Mr. Clark said. “A lot of people, when they think about extremism, they instinctively think about jihadist or [Islamic]-inspired terrorism, which cannot be disregarded at all, but … we see a lot more violent far-right content than you might expect.”

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He said the tool will not track people or be used on social-media platforms. In a news release, the government said the project will “legally act as any other advertiser on the Google search engine, under the same restrictions as mainstream advertising campaigns.”

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale welcomed the project as an effective prevention measure for online radicalization that can lead to violence.

“By pushing counternarratives online to those at risk of radicalization to violence, Canada Redirect will help make us safer. If we can intervene before tragedy strikes, we must,” Mr. Goodale said in a statement to The Globe and Mail.

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