GamerGate: We now know what evil lurks in the heart of man – or trolls
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 Times, Reason, the Washington Post, Vox, Huffington 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.
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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