Often when gaming makes its way into the mainstream, the story is misguided, sensational, and revolves around fear. A recent viral Forbes piece about the PS4 and Daesh hits all three, misrepresenting the situation and perpetuating dogmatic villainization.
UPDATE: It turns out that even the one “fact” found in the Forbes article turned out to be false; according to a report from Kotaku, turns out Paul Tassi “misread” the quote, and there’s no statement any PS4s were found during the raid at all. I’ve updated this post to reflect the new information.
When I first read Forbes’ piece about Daesh possibly coordinating the Paris attacks last Friday via Playstation Network, I was instantly frustrated because I felt like it was taking advantage of the public, typical clickbait trappings of the occasional viral article. Now, after thinking on it, I wonder if it’s gone viral just because it’s giving us what we collectively want: another reason to both fear and attack those who’ve done us harm in places we feel safe.
The original Forbes article only presented one hard fact directly connected to the Paris attacks, then weaves an entire web with it: (emphasis added throughout):
The hunt for those responsible (eight terrorists were killed Saturday night, but accomplices may still be at large) led to a number of raids in nearby Brussels. Evidence reportedly turned up included at least one PlayStation 4 console.
Does “at least one” (which may mean “one”) console’s presence in a raided terrorist area means there’s cause to connect the online network with coordinating the terrorist attack? If there were McDonald’s wrappers in the trash, would an article be written citing McDonald’s as a potential terrorist meeting place?
At first glance, it seems that there are two facts connected to Paris when this paragraph follows the last one without context of when or where it was said:
Belgian federal home affairs minister Jan Jambon said outright that the PS4 is used by ISIS agents to communicate, and was selected due to the fact that it’s notoriously hard to monitor. “PlayStation 4 is even more difficult to keep track of than WhatsApp,” he said.
The XPats article cited shows that Jambon made the statement earlier in the week during a Politico debate before Paris could have been a topic of discussion, while talking about why Brussels supplies so many radicalized fighters to Syria and Iraq.
Tassi also admits in his article that there’s no proof yet that the PS4 was involved in planning the Paris attack:
While it remains unclear whether the Paris ISIS terrorists employed PS4 to communicate, there are a few options, from sending messages through the PlayStation Network (PSN) online gaming service and voice-chatting to even communicating through a specific game. Documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed that the NSA and CIA actually embedded themselves in games like World of Warcraft to infiltrate virtual terrorist meet-ups.
Tassi neglects to mention that, called out in the very article he links to, the leaked documents do not cite any counterterrorism successes from the NSA and CIA searching for terrorists in online games. Tassi also neglects to point out this quote from Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution, an American think tank, that makes the decision to scheme in-game unlikely:
[Games] are built and operated by companies looking to make money, so the players’ identity and activity is tracked. For terror groups looking to keep their communications secret, there are far more effective and easier ways to do so than putting on a troll avatar.
Given, none of this means that no terrorist has ever talked with another terrorist about a plot during online gaming, that the CIA never gained information from spying on online gaming, or that the Paris attack wasn’t discussed over PSN. But there certainly isn’t enough proof to merit the article’s original title, which carries in the article’s tone (and still-functional hyperlink):
At its core, the article’s issue is sensationalism. Yes, it’s certainly possible that terrorists plotted over the Playstation Network online service and knew it was hard for governments to monitor. But there’s no proof or record provided to back the claim; instead the article dives into the mires of how hard it would be to stop terror arranged on a PS4:
The point is that terrorists could simply be in a PSN party together and chatting away mostly free from the fear that anyone is listening because of the difficulty and infrequency of governments eavesdropping on those forms of communication.
There is no collection of games that really should raise “suspicion” about possible terrorist ties in an era where terrorism-filled Call of Duty titles are the best-selling games of the year, every year. How do you “profile” a gamer when information is not easy to access, and probably will tell you nothing even if you could get your hands on it?
Then it dials into fear to the point of absurdity:
The scary part of all this is that there are probably still a number of ways that terrorists could send messages to each other without speaking a word, if they really wanted to. An ISIS agent could spell out an attack plan in Super Mario Maker’s coins and share it privately with a friend, or two Call of Duty players could write messages to each other on a wall in a disappearing spray of bullets. It may sound ridiculous, but there are many in-game ways of non-verbal communication that would almost be impossible to track.
Anyone who’s played a first-person shooter can tell you that trying to write messages in bullet-sprays would be ineffective and frustrating, particularly when using a controller on a PS4 instead of a keyboard and mouse. As far as Super Mario Maker is concerned, any application or game used to create art or custom images could be used for the same purpose. Call of Duty and Super Mario Maker aren’t called out because they’re likely targets: they called out because they’re popular, because people recognize the titles and likely have one of them in their homes, making the threat seem more real.
I can sum up Forbes’ article in one sentence:
Authorities found a PS4 at a raided terrorist site, terrorists may have used the Playstation Network to coordinate the Paris attacks, and the government isn’t completely monitoring the Playstaton Network. Those things are true, and together they make for a lousy story.
There are literally hundreds of ways to pass messages from one person to another without the government easily digitally monitoring them (including the Facebook-owned WhatsApp, apparently, as well as a device called a “piece of paper”), but none of them merit the click-raking power of calling out an entertainment console present in millions of houses worldwide. Articles like these capitalize on talk about a technology that most people either don’t fully understand or carry pre-conceived notions of, then plays on the fear those people carry around with them. This story is neither news nor journalism; it’s opportunism.
One day we could come to find out that the terrorists did use the PS4 to plot their attack. Even if that happened, publishing unfounded, sensational claims like these before substantial evidence appears does a disservice to the journalistic field. Though I think the writing itself is irresponsible, the story’s existence is also an unfortunate consequence of the news cycle we live in, an industry supported by advertisers, views and clicks. It’s a world where the incentive is higher to create a shiny, attention-getting piece that everyone will pay attention to, and to do it before anyone else does.
Still, jumping from “one PS4 console found” to “PSN terror coordination of this specific plot” requires such a stretch that it overlooks one glaringly obvious possibility: the PS4 was present to play games with (if it had actually been there).
According to The Daily Beast, two years of US intelligence data shows that the average radicalized Daesh fighter in America is 26, male, and discusses Daesh on social media. Scott Atran, anthropologist, says that young Daesh recruits are usually youth in transitional stages in life looking for significance, and have generally based their convictions on events in their own lives. Don’t we all make decisions to plot our life courses in similar circumstances?
We’re caught up in a whirlwind of pain and anger after these attacks in Paris, Lebanon, and around the world, so we dogmatically villainize the enemy. When that happens, it’s hard to think that Daesh is made up of people, people who might want to spend a few hours playing Call of Duty or FIFA Soccer or Minecraft just like we do. These people have committed heinous, terrible acts and need to be brought to justice, but are people all the same; it makes it that much harder to talk about bombing and shooting them in to submission when we so badly seek revenge for injustice. Then again, perhaps they seek their own revenge for injustices they’ve experienced.
As of this article’s writing, the Forbes article has 408,186 views (including a few of my refreshes so I could watch the count rise in despair). It was a top-trending topic on Facebook when I first opened the site. On the surface, maybe it’s just a clickbait article that uses the PS4 and current events, but the narrative plays into fantasies of villains in secret hideouts who think of nothing other than our destruction, fantasies which may or may not be grounded in reality. Maybe that’s why the article is so popular…but that’s why it’s so dangerous, too. We have to be mindful in our thoughts and words going forward, because chasing a villain into the darkness can leave us struggling to find the light.