A War of Keywords: How Extremists Are Exploiting the Internet and What to Do About It

A War of Keywords: How Extremists Are Exploiting the Internet and What to Do About It


3 min read


When Donald Trump suggested he would build a wall on the Mexican border, Hillary Clinton retorted, "How high does a wall need to be to keep out the internet?" Today, radicalisation takes place in bedrooms, in libraries, on mobile phones. Connectivity and globalisation cannot be stopped – nor should they. But how can we stop the oncoming traffic of internet radicalisation?

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In this new report, the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics (CRG) and Digitalis Reputation aim to shed light on how accessible extremist content is beyond social media, with a particular focus on the role played by the search engine Google. Initiatives for better understanding extremism on the internet have predominantly been led by experts in extremist ideology or the sociological aspects of radicalisation. Technology firms, key stakeholders in this fight, have played a less prominent role.

We set out not only to identify jihadi content online, but also to find out the extent to which non-jihadi extremist content is accessible. ISIS may seem like the apex of Islamist extremism, but it shares an ideology with others who seek the same objectives and share a worldview. We wanted to know how easily the average user could access extremist material.

We looked at:

  • The average monthly number of global searches conducted in Google for 287 extremism-related keywords, 143 in English and 144 in Arabic.
  • Regional search frequencies in 33 regions, including six US cities, eight UK cities, and 11 countries from the Middle East and North Africa.
  • The first two search engine results pages for 47 keywords to determine rankings of extremist and counter-narrative content, looking at a total of 870 web pages.
  • The linking data of 45 extremist websites, in order to understand inter-website relationships and search engine optimisation (SEO) efforts.

Key Findings

A wide range of extremist content is available online

This study found a broad array of extremist content on websites, including violent and non-violent publications. Extremist views on sectarianism, apostasy, and conspiratorial attitudes towards the West – ideas that permeate much of ISIS' output – feature on mainstream Islamic websites. We found that, of the extremist content accessible through these specific keyword searches, 44 per cent was violent, 36 per cent was non-violent, and 20 per cent was political Islamist content, i.e. non-violent content propagated by, or in support of, a known Islamist group with political ambitions.

Web searches are a gateway to violent extremist content

The average, interested internet user requires nothing more than a simple Google search to gain access to extremist publications from groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. Whether through analysis sites or otherwise, jihadi content is accessible via Google, without the need for social media. From our sample, we found there are on average in the region of more than 484,000 Google searches globally, and at least 54,000 searches in the UK alone, each month for keywords that return results dominated by extremist material. While a wide range of people may have conducted some of these searches, including journalists, researchers, and students, the risk posed by the prevalence of extremist content in these search results is of concern.

Counter-narratives are lagging, but Muslim efforts dominate

Counter-narrative efforts are not challenging the extremist content found in seach engine results pages, with efforts appearing in only 43 of the 870 results analysed, just five per cent of the total. However, of the counter-narratives identified, 91 per cent were Muslim-led. This highlights the efforts taken by Muslims to address the rising tide of extremist ideology online. It is estimated that close to three billion people have access to the internet around the globe, a number expected to swell to more than seven billion by 2020. The need to address the issue and safeguard internet users has never been more pressing.

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