NPR Posits Nazis Are Recruiting All Of Our Children In Online Games With Very Little Evidence

At this point, journalistic handwringing over the assumed dangers of video games has moved beyond annoyance levels and into the trope category. Violence, aggression, becoming sedentary, and the erosion of social skills have all been claimed to be outcomes of video games becoming a dominant choice for entertainment among the population that isn’t collecting social security checks, and all typically with little to no evidence backing it up. This has become so routine that one can almost copy and paste past responses into future arguments.

But NPR really went full moral panic mode with a post that essentially claimed the recruitment of children into rightwing and Nazi extremist groups is a full on thing, while an actual analysis of what it relied on to make that claim reveals, well, very little of substance at all.

Yesterday, NPR published an article titled “Right-Wing Hate Groups Are Recruiting Video Gamers.” It’s the latest, most exaggerated version of a gaming-flavored narrative woven by elite media orgs in an apparent attempt to explain the rise of right-wing extremism in America. This article claims that games “have become one avenue for recruitment by right-wing extremist groups”; to support this, the reporter opens her story with a tale of a 15-year-old Counter-Strike: Global Offensive player whose father, John—no last name given—was one day startled to see neo-Nazi propaganda his son had printed out.

Yesterday’s NPR article, which attempted to make this case, was riddled with the sort of factual elisions one would expect out of propaganda journalism. On the basis of one real-life example and three interviews with apparent experts, the writer claims that gamers are getting plucked out of shooty-shooty games and dropped right into neo-Nazi forums. The most basic problem here feels beneath mention: inflating one anonymous father and his anonymous son’s journey through the bad net into an entire movement is preposterous. Had the reporter spoken to even two, three or four kids who had been rescued from the clutches of Fortniteextremists, it still wouldn’t have been enough. “Where,” one would ask, “is the sense of scale?”

And, as Kotaku notes, the problem of the scale in all of this leads one to the next obvious question. If this were really happening at a level that would warrant sounding the parental klaxons, then how has it been missed by gaming journalists, journalists writ large, the federal authorities, and the federal government? Are we really expected to accept, all on the back of one anecdotal story and a couple of experts contacted for comment, that the much wider world has missed Nazi recruitment in online gaming entirely? I don’t know if ya’ll have noticed, but there’s been a bit of a focus on Nazis and white nationalism as of late. This just flew entirely under the radar?

Even the experts cited in the NPR piece leave very much to be desired. Christian Picciolini, who I have heard speak in other forums and who I generally found to be bright and trustworthy, comes off as simply looking foolish when asked to flesh out his concerns as outlined in the NPR post.

Picciolini, who describes himself as a “former white supremacist leader,” came onto Kotaku’s radar in July, when he hosted a Reddit AMA. In it, he claimed that right-wing extremists go into multiplayer games to recruit vulnerable demographics into their cause. Intrigued, my colleague Kashmir Hill and I reached out to Picciolini to hear more. We were curious about the right-wing movers and shakers who could fit an entire political pitch into a Fortnite match.

When we asked Picciolini for evidence of his claim and an interview, he referred us to “the many who have experienced the recruitment” and attached a few screenshots of Nazi imagery in open world games like All Points Bulletin. He also forwarded a screenshot of the game Active Shooter, a school shooting simulator, which was pulled from Steam before its release. Another screenshot was from a YouTube video titled “Fag Jews” in which someone named AuTiSmGaMiNg played Call of Duty. It had 11 views.

If that response is the best that can be mustered, from someone who is supposed to be an expert witness to the core claim that Nazis are recruiting children in online games no less, then this is going to look like ginned up panic-mongering. And that’s a very real problem, given that there are some very serious social issues we’re dealing with in this country right now, including issues that surround xenophobic white nationalist groups. That problem does exist, but when the fight against that sort of thing is carried out by people willing to inflate the concerns on the specifics, it’s easy to see how this can all result in a boy who cried wolf scenario.

Given the large swaths of the population now playing video games on the regular, a post like NPR’s can only serve to damage its reputation for journalism.

When fear-mongering moves into spaces that require rigorous investigative reporting and large-scale interviewing, it stumbles into the danger zone of modern journalism: “This wild, but unlikely thing is happening, widely. Please panic.”

That sort of thing might sell as a story in the short term, but it does long term damage in building trust with the reading audience. That’s far more dangerous, actually, than whatever tiny number of Nazis are actually trying to lure kids into Nazism via the video game vector.

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