Can Google Ads Be Used for Social Engineering?

Can Google make people not join ISIS? Can Google make people join ISIS?

Recently, there was an op-ed in the New York Times, "I Used Google Ads for Social Engineering. It Worked." Now, ignoring for the moment that this really is using no known definition of "social engineering," the point of the article is that Google ran an experiment using Google advertising to try to "redirect" people who might be inclined to join ISIS to material meant to make them less inclined to join ISIS. In fact, they call it the "Redirect Method" and set up a website to talk about it, as well as a blueprint giving step-by-step instructions to use the Redirect Method.

Like a lot of advertising and marketing, this is trying to pass off the same old stuff in new bottles. Is anyone seriously surprised that the point of advertising is to change people's behavior?

Still, anyone interested in web advertising would do well to read both the website and the blueprint, because it's a nice introduction to how advertising is done and a good outline of how to do it yourself.

In short, here's how you do advertising:

  • figure out what you're selling
  • figure out who might buy it
  • tell those people how to buy it from you.

This scheme really is just an advertising campaign, with one little twist: they were targeting the people who might buy something and sending them to materials to convince them it was a bad idea.

Imagine, for example, if you were trying to sell more Snickers bars. You might come up with a target for people who were hungry and like candy, and send them to images of slender, athletic young and beautiful people eating candy bars. On the other hand, using exactly the same target, if you were the American Diabetes Association, you might send them to a video of the particularly grotesque and unpleasant possible complications of diabetes. (Without going into it, there are lots worse complications than blindness and heart attacks.)

A target for people who like beef might go to Morton's Steakhouse, or to a PETA ad about slaughterhouses.

Now, Google was trying to turn people away from ISIS. We don't actually know if they succeeded. That's the problem with advertising: as the old saying goes, 90 percent is wasted, but we don't know which 90 percent. But it's not an undesirable outcome if it worked.

The author of the article was trying to turn people away from suicide, another desirable outcome.

But try to dress it up as "social engineering" if you like, it's still just advertising.

What would be interesting for someone with the cash to spare would be to, say, buy ads targeting fans of the Green New Deal, and "redirect" them to articles that point out what a disaster that would be for the ordinary flyover-country working people.

What would be even more interesting is whether Google would sell those ads. Are they selling advertising? Or are they really interested in "social engineering"?