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Media runs away with the assumption that terrorists planned Paris attacks via PS4

The speculation that the console could have been used to secretly communicate leads to assumption that it was used in the attacks; poor journalism ensues.

The terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday have left the world reeling, filling millions with shock and horror at the senseless carnage. In the aftermath we have all been looking for answers, hoping to figure out why this happened and how tragedies like it can be prevented in the future.

In an attempt to untangle how the planning of the attacks went undetected, some have been looking back to a statement made a few days before the tragedy. Jan Jambon, Belgium's federal home affairs minister, reportedly "warned of the growing use by terror networks of the gaming console PlayStation 4, which allows terrorists to communicate with each other and is difficult for the authorities to monitor," and is quoted as saying the "PlayStation 4 is even more difficult to keep track of than WhatsApp."

What happened next has been traced back to a Forbes article which initially reported that a PlayStation 4 was seized in Belgian terror raids; it has since been corrected to note that this had not been confirmed. The piece also goes on to speculate at length how the terrorists could have used the PlayStation 4 to send secret messages to each other, including speculating that:

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.

The author, however, notes that those examples "may sound ridiculous" and has since written a follow-up piece addressing specific concerns and complaints readers had regarding the first article, firmly stating that "[t]here is no mass link between video game consoles and terrorism."

Unfortunately, those corrections and follow-ups didn't come quickly enough to prevent the avalanche of articles on the subject from other news sites, bearing such titles as "Terrorists are using PlayStation 4 to communicate" and "Why terrorists love PlayStation 4" - and being reported as fact on the national news. The whole thing reached the point where Sony felt the need to issue the following statement to Eurogamer and other outlets:

PlayStation 4 allows for communication amongst friends and fellow gamers and, in common with all modern connected devices, this has the potential to be abused. However, we take our responsibilities to protect our users extremely seriously and we urge our users and partners to report activities that may be offensive, suspicious or illegal. When we identify or are notified of such conduct, we are committed to taking appropriate actions in conjunction with the appropriate authorities and will continue to do so.

Fortunately, some outlets such as Newsweek and Kotaku have since attempted to dig to the bottom of this and correct the false assumptions, but it may be too late to undo the damage.

So why did all this happen?

Though some have claimed that it's just another case of the biased media trying to link video game culture to violence - which, granted, may have contributed to the spread of the misinformation - I suspect that it was a simple consequence of bad reporting combined with how quickly news spreads nowadays. With everyone looking for news to publish, especially about recent events like this which leave so many terrible unanswered questions in our minds, there's a rush to publish the news articles and the counter-articles and the counter-counter-articles as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, fact-checking sometimes falls by the wayside.

As for what we can learn from all this, well, I don't know what to tell you. Don't jump to conclusions? Check your facts first? Don't rush to judgement? Headlines always lie? If you're talking about the PlayStation 4, don't use a Nintendo title as an example?

I'm not an expert on journalism; I'm just another fallible reporter, and I certainly have no room to judge. Heck, when I first started this article, I thought the claims that the terrorists had used a PlayStation 4 were founded on facts - it was only through a combination of luck and research that I learned the truth. Guess I have a thing or two to learn myself.

Published Nov. 16th 2015
  • Mathenaut
    Chickens coming home to roost. People have been warning about the lazy media for a while, and certain people just full on embraced it uncritically regardless.

    This is what happens. Don't call it a grave, it's the future you chose.
  • Durinn McFurren
    Contributor
    Honestly, there have been a lot of examples of simple 'bad reporting' and cases of information being twisted through a sort of a (probably mostly innocent) series of assumptions and 'whisper game effects.'

    For instance, I was myself persuaded yesterday that a muslim guard named Zouheir had taken great personal risk and possibly died to ensure that a suicide bomber was not able to enter a soccer stadium. But as it turns out, Zouheir, a real person, had no actual contact with any suspected terrorists, and nobody knows what religion, if any, he might follow. See the Snopes discussion at www.snopes.com/zouheir/

    So, the point is, people come up with various stories, others copy them and add little 'embellishments,' often based on fairly innocent assumptions, and soon you have a major news story on your hands that has no factual basis.

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