It doesn’t appear to have been Bullet Train’s violent content that prompted the withdrawal per se, but rather that CPAC draws lots of gun rights advocates right at the same time those same National Rifle Association types are drawing a massive wave of criticism in the wake of another school massacre in Parkland, Florida this month.
A number of companies have cut ties with the NRA, like software firm Symantec, which decided to pull discounts for the pro-gun group’s members this week. A running New York Times tally of others to do so includes banks, airlines, automotive rentals and services, insurance companies, and a home security company. As the Times noted on Friday, boycott campaigns tend to fade over time but this time the pressure has built quickly, buoyed by a number of Parkland survivors speaking out on social media and leaving some corporations with no middle ground to recede to.
A demo clip of Bullet Train hosted on the Oculus Rift website shows that at least one level in the game involves the player fighting through waves of “resistance forces” in a fairly generic rail station setting. It does not appear to be particularly bloody, though video of CPAC attendees using the game’s motion-tracking controls in a vague pantomime of actual shooting probably did not help, either.
In a statement to Variety, Facebook virtual reality VP Hugo Barra said:
There is a standard set of experiences included in the Oculus demos we feature at public events. A few of the action games can include violence. In light of the recent events in Florida and out of respect for the victims and their families, we have removed them from this demo. We regret that we failed to do so in the first place.
Yet the optics of the Oculus Rift demo are probably not the most important issue Facebook should be worried about right now.
Facebook itself has also come under fire for the rapid spread of conspiracy theories about the Parkland shooting, which as CNN noted migrate from internet underbellies like 4chan onto mainstream social media sites via “conservative pages, alt-right personalities, nationalist blogs and far-right pundits.” Posts on Facebook promoting the idiotic smear that survivors speaking out against guns were “crisis actors,” i.e. some hazily defined variety of professional propagandists paid off to promote gun control, went far and wide; the social media giant repeatedly declined to discuss how it was enforcing violations of its community guidelines against offenders when asked by CNN.
Per the New York Times, it is still really, really easy to find hundreds of posts claiming the shooting was part of a “deep state” black flag operation or the like using Facebook’s built-in search option, which kind of calls into question the company’s sincerity:
On Facebook and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, searches for the hashtag #crisisactor, which accused the Parkland survivors of being actors, turned up hundreds of posts perpetuating the falsehood (though some also criticized the conspiracy theory). Many of the posts had been tweaked ever so slightly—for example, videos had been renamed #propaganda rather than #hoax—to evade automated detection.
The spread of the theories on Facebook has also caused some in the tech media to question whether the long-maligned and ill-defined “trending” metric should be retired. Users who post conspiracy theories often rabidly engage with others promoting similar ideas, which in numerous instances means the posts are promoted right to the top of Facebook and other sites like YouTube.
However, some of the motivation to pull Bullet Train from CPAC may also have been instigated by President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly trotted out rambling, scientifically unsupported arguments that violent video games play a role in mass shootings.
“I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts,” the president said at a recent meeting on school safety. “And then you go the further step and that’s the movies. You see these movies, they’re so violent, and yet a kid is able to see the movie if sex isn’t involved, but killing is involved.”