When it was introduced last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s “Don’t Be a Puppet” campaign was billed as a novel way to help educate teenagers about avoiding the pull of violent extremism.
The website, which teaches users how to pinpoint when young people are drifting toward radical ideology, is part of a broader initiative launched by the federal government to counter homegrown extremism. The site’s development comes as the Islamic State terror group seeks to ramp up its recruitment of young people in the West.
But as high-school students around the nation continue to settle into a new school year, the American Federation of Teachers union and other groups have come out against the campaign.
In August, the groups, which include the American Association of School Administrators and American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, wrote a letter to FBI director James Comey saying they were “deeply troubled” by the Don’t Be A Puppet campaign and claimed it would increase distrust of Muslim and Middle Eastern students. Critics of the website fear that the recent bomb attacks in New York and New Jersey, and stabbings at a Minnesota mall, will be used to further justify its use with young people.
The website—which walks users through various topics related to extremism and allows them to “free the puppet’ after each section—references religious and environmental extremism, white supremacy, and anarchists. It offers short explanations of the Sept. 11 attacks, as well as the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City.
Specifically, the advocacy groups have raised concerns that the computer program can too easily be interpreted as singling out Muslims. Critics have taken issue with several of the potential signs of extremist behavior that the website warns users to report—such as “talking about traveling to places that sound suspicious” and “using code words or unusual language.”