In February 2016, the Washington Post published an article by Caitlin Dewey entitled, “In the battle of Internet mobs vs. the law, Internet mobs have won.” In December of 2016 as we ask whether fake news generated for profit in places like cash-strapped Macedonia and other Balkan nations influenced a US election because of viral sharing, work out how internet conspiracy theories led a man to fire an assault rifle in a pizza place full of families, and worry over the rise of racial hate speech directed at journalists, that headline feels infinitely extendable.
In the battle of internet mobs vs. humanity, internet mobs have won.
But that article wasn’t about the “alt-right” (a loose collection of racist and misogynist conservative hate groups) or hate speech. It was about Zoe Quinn, whose horrific harassment at the hands of online abusers because of supposed ethical misdeeds sparked the GamerGate controversy beginning in August 2014.
Quinn was subjected to threats of rape and death, had her private information, including her home address, publicly revealed, and was viciously harassed.
Yet in many circumstances, as Dewey notes, the First Amendment protects even the targeted and potentially harmful speech that Quinn was subjected to. And social media platforms, especially Twitter where GamerGate principally played out, have been slow to respond to the problems of harassment that they have enabled.
Brianna Wu, a game developer who has also been a subject of GamerGate harrassment has spoken out on Twitter about the links between the kind of abuse she has received and what America is now seeing play out during the election when political opponents of Donald Trump often became targeted for death threats by his supporters—even those who were usually conservative favorites like Fox News’s Megyn Kelly:
Trump is the Gamergate president. He sends his followers to harass and threaten anyone that threatens his worldview. https://t.co/OoJHsYCebs
— Brianna Wu (@Spacekatgal) December 9, 2016
The Southern Poverty Law Center reported at least 900 events they identified as hate crimes in the ten days following the presidential election, and the “alt-right” continues to become emboldened by political successes like the appointment of Breitbart’s Steve Bannon as President-Elect Donald Trump’s Chief Strategist.
Breitbart, under Bannon’s leadership, had links to the racist, misogynistic and anti-semitic “alt-right,” and out-going Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has called for Trump to rescind this appointment because of concerns about the message this appointment may send.
Women who play games online, like women who inhabit any kind of space, have to play by a different set of rules from men because we have to think about our safety in ways that men don’t. Maybe we’re used to this.
Anita Sarkeesian, a cultural critic and vlogger whose nonprofit Feminist Frequency has made her a target for—say it with me here, ladies!–vicious online harassment from the GamerGate community, has created a guide called “Speak Up & Stay Safe(r): A Guide to Protecting Yourself from Online Harassment.”
And it’s troubling to think that now, this guide may not just be a necessary tool for interacting publicly in online spaces as girl geeks, girl gamers. It might be a necessary guide for how to interact online, full stop.
I started playing online games in 2008 when I fell in love with World of Warcraft. In 2009, I happened to see someone I knew in real life—a friend of a friend I didn’t really care for, but was cordial with and occasionally grouped with for dungeons—make a misogynistic joke aboug girl gamers in a public chat channel for our server.
His DPS was higher than mine, granted. But still.
I called him on the joke, privately, and he immediately trotted out the “just a joke, my strong, independent fiancee would kill me…” defense. I suppose I accepted it. It’s not like I could actually do anything to him.
We stopped grouping together much. I think it was a year or two later that I heard him make a racist joke about African-Americans in the same public channel. This time I called him on it in public. “Oh, Sophie,” was all he had to say this time.
I don’t think we ever spoke again.
I don’t know if this person has a Twitter account. I don’t know that he’s ever watched revenge porn, harassed anyone, or done anything but work, marry his strong independent fiancee and pollute Azeroth with some mean jokes.
But because I knew him in real life as a nice guy who charmed coworkers, my own friends, but then showed this ugly face online, it made me wonder what other nice guys were hiding nasty faces they only showed to women they played games with or interacted with in terrifying ways online.
In 2016, America learned about what the gaming community has, in one kind or another, been dealing with for a long time. GamerGate was the “alt-right”‘s cradle, and because those problems weren’t taken seriously upon their emergence and 4-chan gangs were allowed to run wild without legal or technical remedy, we’re now left to face a much bigger challenge.
We have to be ready.