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.”