FBI's Don't Be a Puppet game targets Muslim youth, teachers' union says

By Mazin Sidahmed, For The Guardian, On Aug 26th 2016, Read Original

A controversial FBI program targeting Muslim teenagers has drawn criticism from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), claiming it leads to bullying and profiling.

The union, which represents 1.6 million teachers in the US, sent an open letter to FBI director James Comey earlier this month to call for an end to the agency’s Don’t Be a Puppet program which aims to prevent youth from being radicalized.

“What we saw with the Don’t be a Puppet program, was that it created this broad based suspicion of people based upon their heritage or ethnicity,” AFT president Randi Weingarten said.

Don’t Be a Puppet: Pull Back the Curtain on Violent Extremism is an online game the FBI launched in February. It is set in a dingy basement where students compete a series of tasks to liberate a puppet on strings.

“Increasing ideological policing and surveillance efforts like the Don’t be a Puppet campaign will have a chilling effect on our schools and immigrant communities,” the letter said.

Nineteen civil rights and community groups signed the letter including the National Immigration Law Center and the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Several Muslim community leaders previewed the game last year and were instantly incensed.

“It was pretty bad,” said Abed Ayoub, legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee who was at the initial preview. “We felt that it really did target the Arab and Muslim community, and there was no room for it inside a classroom.”

ADC and other groups have actively spoken out against the game, which they say leads to bullying and profiling of Muslim students.

Following the meeting, the game’s release was pushed back but it was eventually rolled out in February, with some minor modifications.

It was met with ridicule and widely panned by gaming publications. In one game, users navigate a goat around virtual obstacles, and are rewarded with a sample text of the “distorted logic” foreign terrorists use to lure youth.

It remains unclear how many – if any – schools have adopted the program for use in the classroom or individuals at home.

“The FBI is aware of concerns raised by the American Federation of Teachers about the Don’t Be a Puppet campaign and plans to engage directly with the group’s leaders in the near future,” said Matthew Berton, FBI spokesman said.

The game is part of a larger counter-extremism program by the FBI. The agency released guidelines in January that provide suggestions to children on how to report others who travel to “suspicious” countries, and those who criticize western corruption.

In a report last year, the 9/11 review commission suggested that the FBI was not “an appropriate vehicle” for producing social programs combating extremism given its role as a law enforcement and intelligence agency.

The state department launched a Twitter campaign in called Think Again Turn Away in December 2013 to combat extremism online, which involved actively engaging with known jihadist accounts on Twitter. The state department’s Twitter handle would chime in on conversations between prominent jihadists accounts’ and attempt to convince them to change their beliefs. It was widely criticized for playing into the Islamic State propaganda as opposed to stifling it.