GamerGate: We now know what evil lurks in the heart of man – or trolls

October 17, 2014

A girl dressed in costume plays a video game at the PAX East gaming conference in Boston

For the purposes of this column, all you need to know about “GamerGate” is that it has earned writer Anita Sarkeesian, game entrepreneur Brianna Wu, and developer Zoe Quinn violent threats from anonymous Internet sources (here’s coverage in the New York TimesReason, the Washington PostVoxHuffington Post, the Guardian, and Gawker, if you want to know more).

Sarkeesian canceled a speaking engagement at Utah State University after three death threats — one promising “the deadliest school shooting in American history” — were lodged against her and the school said a state law prohibited it from banning permitted concealed weapons from the campus. Wu, who joked about GamerGate online, says ensuing violent threats caused her and her husband to flee their home. Quinn collected threats in the opening days of the “scandal” for having allegedly engaged in unethical behavior.

Many journalists have received anonymous death threats at some point in their careers from people who think a promise to execute you in Grand Guignol fashion constitutes effective press criticism. The first death threat tends to leave an unsettling impression, but over time American journalists learn that anonymous death threats, like bloody road-rage howling, can usually be ignored.

But not all murderous bile is created equal. While readers have vowed to kill or otherwise rough me up over the years, I wouldn’t equate those generic promises with what other writers — especially female ones — say they face routinely on the Web. In a January 2014 Pacific Standard piece titled “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” writer Amanda Hess, who covers sex, politics, and culture, documents the anonymous threats to kill, rape, and stalk her for speaking her mind in print.

Hess is no outlier. Last summer, in a round-up piece about online ugliness against women, the Washington Post‘s Alyssa Rosenberg provided other examples. (See also Kat Stoeffel in New York). A comic-book review by Janelle Asselin was greeted by rape threats. The comments section at the feminist site Jezebel became such a garden of sexual harassment that staffers demanded that their bosses at Gawker rein the section in. After asking on Twitter if anybody knew if any country offered free or subsidized tampons to residents, Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti was told to undergo a hysterectomy or have her vagina sewn shut for asking. “When people say you should be raped and killed for years on end, it takes a toll on your soul,” Valenti told Hess. When men she doesn’t know approach her at public events, she added, “the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.”

Other female writers of my acquaintance say they regularly endure physical threats and vile comments about their sexual equipment merely for publishing. I can’t say that I know of many male journalists who have suffered similarly, although I’m sure gay writers are invited to kill themselves in great number.

What possesses people to make the anonymous threats against women? Our culture has corrected many cultural wrongs against women over the last century — granting them the vote; allowing them to hold property after marriage; make reproductive decisions; and so on — and no revolution leaves everybody happy. But even then, I don’t think the death and rape threats are necessarily coming from chauvinist counter-revolutionaries. I blame the Web’s embrace of anonymity for making these sociopathic gestures so easy to make without being held accountable.

That doesn’t mean I oppose anonymity. Inscribed inside the concept of anonymity is the right to be left alone, the greatest right there is. Anonymity also encourages many excellent behaviors, such as voting in a democratic election, which many would otherwise avoid. Likewise, the Web makes it supremely easy for whistleblowers to bring wrongdoing to the attention of journalists and for all to speak their minds against power. For all that I’m grateful.

The dark side of anonymity, of course, is the sucker punch that comes out of the dark. No murder and rape threat I’ve read in preparing this column has a human being’s signature attached to it. Like the people who write, “For a good time, call Edith at 555-1212″ on a toilet-stall wall, the death- and rape-threat perpetrators would be silent if they knew their covers could be blown. Another enabler is the ease that the Web offers. In the old days, when your id instructed you to anonymously threaten a woman with rape, you had to write the letter by hand, address the envelope, stick a stamp on it, and send it via post. Then, a couple of days later, your message would arrive. This sort of delayed satisfaction does not appeal to the average id, whereas the structure of today’s Web allows you to terrify almost anybody instantaneously. And get away with it.

Reforming sociopathic personalities, alas, is beyond my powers as a columnist. In lieu of a cure, a few institutional changes could slow if not stop the damage done by the idiot ids on the Web. A pair of excellent suggestions came from Brianna Wu, one of the targeted women in GamerGate. When a rampaging id tweets his abuse, Twitter users can block their accounts from view. But that’s not a perfect remedy, because an unlimited number of new, unblocked accounts can be created. To defeat these serial abusers, she told the BBC this week, Twitter should give users the option of blocking accounts opened within the last 30 days. That wouldn’t eliminate all abuse tweets, but it would consume more of their time, and one thing we know about the id is that it craves instant gratification. She also calls for Twitter to allow users to share “block lists,” which would crimp the perpetrators’ reach. Likewise, comments sections that can’t prevent users from promising rape and dismemberment ought to shut themselves down.

The police will remain remiss in their duties until they start taking online death threats seriously. The fact that the police shrug off the threats is one of the reasons the ids feel so free to terrorize people. Finally, where are the hackers when you need them? I’d like to see their talents put to use exposing the identities of the threat-makers. Let them feel a little terror for once.

 

My favorite countermeasure, the Twitter account “Eliza R. Barr,” got some publicity in the New Statesman yesterday. Untended by human intelligence, Eliza is a bot who tweets comments and questions designed to engage responses from GamerGate enthusiasts in hopes of exhausting them. Eliza is like one of those diabolical phone trees from which you can’t escape, but you keep pressing buttons because you think the next number you tap will bring satisfaction.

If human intelligence and bots can’t slow the trolls, I give up.

******

Send only love mail to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. Fair warning: My Twitter account is run by a bot. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

 

PHOTO: A girl dressed in costume plays a video game at the PAX East gaming conference in Boston, Massachusetts April 7, 2012. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi 

24 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

What makes the threats against the women different? The author just states that without providing any reason for it, despite it being the foundation for the whole article (i.e. if the threats weren’t fundamentally different, then there is no reason to have focussed specifically on females who received them over all journalists/bloggers that have). Second, I looked at the twitter bot and am not entirely sure what it does. However, the writer essentially describes it as a spamming bot. How can it possibly be a good thing to “exhaust” (which is really just censorship) those you disagree with? Perhaps the response to the sexists, racists, and misogynists should be dialectic and not Twitter spam-bots and numerous tweets insulting everyone. This article is just a heaping mess. The issue of threats journalists receive (some of which have been real) is pretty important, interesting, and a lot deeper than just GamerGate. This article (after what else I mentioned was fixed) would serve much better under that.

Posted by Doolio | Report as abusive

Once upon a time, gamers were arguing that video games didn’t make them more violent, now there’s legions of them threatening rape, death, etc. and all because some women don’t like the way games portray women.

I hope they’re all caught, publicly shamed, and punished appropriately for their behavior. Out here in the real world, behavior has consequences.

Posted by Rick_FromTexas | Report as abusive

I hope that people like this Snarkedian woman continue to follow in the footsteps of the great Jack Thompson (who was right by the way). Hopefully women like her will begin the control the morality of this extremist form of entertainment.

Posted by herbpennypacker | Report as abusive

Where to start….

For just a video game article, this story is a lot deeper than what this article mentions. First and foremost, threats of ANY nature are immature and wrong. That being said, “Gamergate” is >NOT< about how reporters/journalist/bloggers are treated. Gamergate is the movement started by the customers against biased and inappropriate relationships in gaming forums/websites/mags.

It was discovered that SEVERAL large magazines and websites were showing favoritism in a coordinated effort to writers who were having relationships with their editors. to the point they would promote their products, and attack their opponents….. when the consumers demanded action, the response was a coordinated attack against those voicing anger…. This entire piece hides behind the few bad apples you’ll find in ANY large community of people to cloud the real issue.

Posted by Sweet_T | Report as abusive

There is no justice and you want to argue for it only in the cases that you think are important Jack. Where is your vitriol for the masters of the world? Our leaders are corrupt puppets to wealthy owners who see us all as chattel. I will not worry about imbecile gamers. It’s likely a misdirection that your bosses have requested. Did you see that AIG is sueing the federal government? What do you think of that Mr. Justice Jack? Exactly how many bankers have we imprisoned for their illegal activities that destroyed our economy and cause millions to lose their homes? These gamers live in a world of fantasy and are possibly insane, but why wouldn’t they be. This nation is told constant lies and wealth buys freedom from responsibily. If all is crazy then crazy is normal. And you want to pick a few pet things to whine about.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Not sure why this article doesn’t explain what Gamersgate is.

Gamersgate is the alledged collusion of the game journalism industry with the game production industry. Supposedly once they were called out, the journalsts at 4 or 5 major game review outlets released a torrent of articles in thinly vieled attacks on their user base in an attempt to discredit the accusations.

Posted by Sausage121 | Report as abusive

“Gamergate” was about the ridiculously close relationship between the game developers/publishers and the gaming journalists and review sites. They’ve gotten so close that the journalists and review sites act, in effect, like unpaid public relations and marketing firms.

This journalist did not bother to dig that deep, instead assuming that “Gamergate” is all about Sarkeesian and a bunch of misogynistic trolls. Some of whom are female, but most of whom are male.

The point of the article, that the Internet offers anonymous ways to issue threats and sow fear, is quite correct. And the speed of the internet means that law enforcement is basically helpless to stop it. Even investigating a threat takes far longer than issuing one does, and the sheer volume makes it difficult to pick out the serious ones.

Posted by Burns0011 | Report as abusive

I can’t complain too much, because this is clearly marked in the OPINION section, but it is blatantly false and very misleading. To associate gamegate with your opinion piece on misogyny is wrong. Gamergate is a movement to keep video game journalist morally and ethically honest. It has nothing to do with the misogyny of certain gamers. You are free to write whatever you want about how much you hate gamers, not all of them are saints, but that’s a HUGE brush to paint an entire large subset of the world’s population. No ties were ever made to the gamergate movement from the death threats issued. The only people trying to make the two separate arguments are the same people who gamergate is against, unethical journalists and the self proclaimed Social Justice Warriors. It’s all a deflection technique as part of their “Gamers are Dead” initiative. Watch this investigative video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YCExXie1 XB4

Posted by MillerEP | Report as abusive

iv followed this story for a while. i am an advocate for universal equality, however, this woman seems to be manufacturing these stories for her gain. it is harmful to equilists everywhere and we should condemn her and the story.

Posted by potehid | Report as abusive

the addresses were traced back to their own computers in the threats. why isnt this reported?

Posted by potehid | Report as abusive

Brilliant Rick, though I think you failed to realize that there is a difference between impotent threats and actual violence.

And where are the legions? I have heard of a few cases over and over…

Not much different than all the other childish abuse that happens daily on the internet

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

I guess we are dancing on the edge of free speech vs hate speech. Does gory sex crazed horror movies apply here – or does Hollywood get a free lunch on exploitation?

Our society is ripe with options for new lawyers to ramp up for the social media arena. Can you sue someone for slander by saying bad things about you on facebook or twitter? Can you go to jail for threatening someone online? It is hard to tell the tone (jest or serious) without a voice.

Thank goodness we are not yet thinking like fundamentalist Muslims.

Posted by Butch_from_PA | Report as abusive

“Collusion of the game journalism industry” ranks about dead last on a list of problems facing humanity, anyone who has decided to dedicate hours of their time to raging about this should reexamine the direction of their lives…

Posted by LavrentiBeria | Report as abusive

GG is about industry corruption in journalism, or such as it exists in the game sector. This article provides neither evidence or a convincing argument s gamers are here to destroy women’s lives. Back to journo school, kiddo.

Posted by riggsby | Report as abusive

Another laughable article from a mainstream media source? How surprising.

The truth is that the alleged threats were never proven to be either legitimate or from the GamerGate movement. Indeed, the screenshots that Ms. Sarkeesian and others have released are fishy to say the least, and while we can’t prove that they were faked it really isn’t important that we do so.

And why’s that?

Because the narrative of GamerGate as a hate group is a complete fabrication, spun up by powerful media conglomerates in order to suppress a consumer revolt with censorship and slander. From the beginning, calls for ethical conduct in the games media have come from gamers of every gender, race, sexual orientation, and political ideology. An inconvenient and often overlooked (at least by corrupt journalists) fact is that in August, a Kickstarter campaign aimed at getting money to charity and more women into the industry, held by the self-described ‘radical feminist’ group The Fine Young Capitalists came under fire by none other than Zoe Quinn.

Her brilliant reasoning behind this? The contest, which demanded nothing more than an idea from the contestants and whose proceeds went both to the winner and to charity, was “exploiting women”. Outraged that an amoral hypocrite like Ms. Quinn was trying to shut down such a noble cause, it was none other, the horrible misogynists at 4chan and GamerGate who pitched in to get the project successfully funded.

I urge all of you to check out the #NotYourShield hashtag on twitter, and to take a minute of your time to watch the following video:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipcWm4B3 EU4

It’s telling that this article begins by calling us to refrain from additional research.

Posted by WorriedCitizen | Report as abusive

We “go to” horror movies, paying to be offended. How many personal horror movies are shown in theatres? Threats are threats, the cousin of a friend of mine once threatened to put a bullet through my brain because I gave that friend the source of the phrase “dyed in the wool.” I should have sent the threat to the police and had that Wisconsin Chain Saw Welder taken before the courts but I didn’t; I just shut him and that entire family out of my life. We need to watch the death threats, not the “I wish you would have a grand piano fall on your head” type of threat, the direct threat. All direct threats should be taken seriously. Yes, you can go to jail for threatening someone online, it has happened; the concept of receiving a paper letter in the US mail or slipped under one’s door is exactly the same thing. It doesn’t need to be sounded through a larynx.

Posted by SixthRomeo | Report as abusive

If you actually want to know what gamergate is about, look here: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/events/gam ergate

Heads up, it’s not about harassment.It’s about Gamers being treated by shit by the Games Journalism Industry and being censored for expressing discontent.

There are actual people, publicly involved in Gamergate, not just some anonymous horde like you suggest. And while there have been threats and harassment, to both sides, the Gamergate people have actually made efforts to track these people down. Even finding one of Anita Sarkesian’s threatners.

Posted by islandsun | Report as abusive

There is truth to the fact that these women are being harassed.
No one deserves to be harassed in this way.
Even the journalists you mention who have become hardened to it.

However.
One thing this article fails to take into consideration is the amount of effort that supporters of GamerGate are expending in reporting this harassment.
There are many verifiable incidences of Gamergate supporters being the first to call for a harassing account to be banned and reported the actions of said accounts.
There has even been a concerted effort to track down and identify one of these harassers who has pursued Anita Saarkasian for some time.
Currently, the evidence seems to indicate someone in Brazil.

This is something everyone is concerned about and, when it falls within our power to do something about it, GamerGate supporters respond to those trolls who act this way under the tag or otherwise.

Anonymity provides many benefits, as you say in the article.
For all those benefits though, there has to be a balance somewhere.
There has to be a recourse available to pierce the veil on people who flagrantly misuse it.
I hope that something comes from the FBI dedicating resources to this growing problem as there is only so much that a group can do to police trolls who wish to wear its name, much as there is only so much that can be done in response to a person who wears an account like a mask then drops it after they have struck.

A shared blacklist may work, but it would likely be used to filter out more than just trolls, at the same time it is the right of anyone to metaphorically stick their fingers in their ears, even if it makes them look silly.

The idea regarding giving egg accounts time before they hatch sounds like a good one.
That said, there are some trolls that are sharp enough to mass create accounts to bypass any such time limit before posting or automatic blocking is bypassed.
Not all are fueled by immediate action and gratification.
There are some who are more dedicated to their hateful actions.
However, I think the idea has merit as it would negate the emotion driven response that leads to what I assume makes up a good majority of the trolling that takes place.

To end this, I hope you do read this comment and, should you write more about GamerGate, consider the people within it who are taking a stand against harassment and those who are being harassed themselves for supporting GamerGate.
You may not believe they exist if you read certain websites, but look closer and you’ll spot them easily enough.

Posted by MikeyBB | Report as abusive

I had a difficult time reading this article.

Perhaps it is because I consider anyone who uses twitter to be moronic–unless they are some self-aggrandizing, self-important Twitter celeb who makes cash from Twitter ads or marketing–then at least they have the excuse of greed feeding on the superficial phone addicts who clutch their tiny glass teats before their faces while walking, driving, or when out with friends in a restaurant etc.

Oops…was that more than 140 characters? I hope I did not overload your intellect. Perhaps I should be more succinct and pithy.

wut? r u sad? gerd u need a txt chng tht wd b gr8 huh?

It is passing strange to hear a writer complaining about discovering morons on a moronic medium. It is like complaining that a steaming pile of crap attracts flies.

Posted by MaskOfZero | Report as abusive

Reporters keep saying that the death threats kept Anita Sarkeesian from speaking at University of Utah as if that is a big loss. She and the others mentioned have already spoken out all over the Internet, spewing their own hate and venom at anyone that disagrees with them. I do not think her not speaking is a big loss.

And was it like 10 people that were planning to show up to hear her speak? Dying from ebola or from terrorism is a big loss. And, publicity stunt pictures of the death threats or the police reports verifying the death threats, or it didn’t happen.

If they were threats in the comments section somewhere, everyone knows that you should not read the comments section unless you are steeled for being trolled by anything you can imagine (and some things you would have never imagined). That’s been the way the Internet is since it started letting anonymous users post comments. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

Posted by Maddog419 | Report as abusive

Its interesting how you label anyone who says something negative or even vile against a woman as a sociopath. How about when they make all sorts of negative and vile comments about men? They believe it is open season on that and, of course, that it is perfectly OK. Perhaps these women who write these pieces should also be labeled with some illness if men don’t like what they say. Its sounds like that is what we do now. Maybe that is where these “sociopaths” take their cue from.

Posted by danrothesq | Report as abusive

Not sure why this whole affair is called Gamergate. Regardless of whether or not Ms. Quinn used sex with a few game journo hacks for shameless self promotion, the product at the heart of this, Depression Quest, can hardly be called a game. It’s a juvenile choose your own adventure story. Hope gamersgate.com got a nice sales boost out of it, though. Not a bad platform.

If there’s a story here, it’s the gamejournopros mailing list, where supposed journalists collude and reach consensus opinion. Which isn’t really a story to anyone who pays attention to this industry.

Posted by Jameson4Lunch | Report as abusive

Sweet_t is right, there’s more reason for a bunch of anonymous users attacking a few so-called journalists because they are women, or whatever. It boils down to the journalists who do reviews having cozy relationships with the developers of the games they review. There is no independent journalism in any print magazines, and online gaming magazings are about as opaque. Frustrations boiled over with the expose on zoe, with allegations that she’d slept with a journalist who had reviewed one of her games, and her blase reaction on the internet made it worse. Even though it was revealed he slept with her after leaving the review, he was friends with her before that, but did not disclose that relationship in his positive review of a game most gamers hated. The real tragety is media reports are not focusing on the core issue of ethics, and instead external groups are hijacking this story to paint mysogynist gamers, or talk about the negative side of internet anonymity. This will just make the gamers feel like victims and they will shout louder to try and get their message accross.

Posted by redarcher | Report as abusive

Video games and people who play them pose far less risk to society than rogue cop movies/TV shows and the police personnel who watch them.

There are far more incidents of cops going crazy on people, than gamers doing it.

We need to get our priorities straight.

I appreciate Mr. Shafer exploring the periphery of the consequences of some of our forms of entertainment, but we should concentrate our efforts where the real danger lies.

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