Opinion

What #Gamergate’s Critics Get Right And Why It Doesn’t Matter: Harassment

REUTERS/Ina Fassbender

Mytheos Holt Policy Analyst

With last year’s debunking of Rolling Stone’s infamous UVA Rape story as a hoax perpetrated by a deeply unethical journalist, concerns about feminism’s corrosive influence on journalistic and academic integrity officially went mainstream. How odd, then, that the movement most ahead of its time in blowing the horn on this issue – a movement that is still going, despite having sustained enough fictional deaths to rival the life cycle of Flappy Bird – is still steadfastly cast as hateful and itself corrosive.

That movement is Gamergate, the consumer revolt against intellectual dishonesty and agenda-driven or corruption-driven behavior within the gaming industry that has raged unchecked for close to half a year. To its proponents, it is a noble last gasp of integrity within an art form that is under siege from censors. To its enemies, it is nothing but a vehicle for misogynistic harassment and thuggish, violent suppression directed toward enlightened criticism of a retrograde industry. And make no mistake, those enemies have been better at getting their views accepted (despite their factual inaccuracy), as now “Law & Order: SVU” seems to have taken it upon itself to transform #Gamergate into its villain of the week. Game developer Brianna Wu, one of the movement’s most bitter and steadfast enemies, has also penned an essay claiming she’s “risking her life” by standing up to #Gamergate.

Ironically enough, despite being an attempt to silence the movement, Wu’s essay has breathed new life back into it, which has been mostly dormant for the past month. With enemies like this, Gamergate scarcely needs allies. Nevertheless, the charges she makes are serious, and so some consideration of their accuracy and fairness is warranted.

Let’s get one obvious point out of the way – there’s no doubt at all that some degree of harassment has taken place under the #Gamergate banner. Screenshots of actual emails by those subjected to this treatment prove it. Doxxing (ie revealing a target’s personal contact information in a public forum) has also taken place, with probably the most shameful episode being the doxing of actress Felicia Day for the mere act of stating that she was afraid of the movement – a statement that should have been met with acts of charity and assurance of safety. Some within the movement have understandably tried to disclaim responsibility for Day’s mistreatment (Day did not respond to requests for comment), and while it is true that the only evidence tying the doxx poster to it is the fact that the poster used the username “Gamerg8,” and usernames are one of the easier ways for trolls to throw up false flags, Occam’s razor suggests that it was simply an unhinged supporter of the movement.

And speaking of unhinged, Jace Connors, one of the men who Wu cites most prominently in her article is so nuts that even the house wiki of 4chan, Encyclopedia Dramatica, regards him with disdain, despite the fact that 4chan is widely regarded as one of the birthplaces of #Gamergate. Another – the man Wu describes as “wearing a skull mask” — was identified by the anti-Gamergate subreddit “Gamerghazi” as “Tyce Andrews, leader of the white nationalist Juggalo gang ‘White Justice Army.’”

These men are as far from a representative supporter of #Gamergate as, say, the Charlie Hebdo attackers were of Islam generally. And just as in the Charlie Hebdo case, few would accept the idea that all Muslims are tarnished by the association (especially considering that a Muslim man himself died trying to protect the magazine staff), the threats against Wu by such confirmed nutters are scarcely fair to lay at the door of an entire movement. Especially considering that #Gamergate, being a Twitter hashtag movement, has precisely zero power over who claims to be associated with it, as pretty much anyone can use the hashtag with impunity.

That being said, death threats have almost certainly also occurred, though against whom, and how seriously they should be taken, are subjects worth more discussion. In any case, the critics are right that the movement has its fair share of bad apples, some of whom have unfortunately been elevated to spokespeople simply by virtue of bluster. Worse, one of the movement’s celebrity supporters has publicly called for songwriter Jonathan Mann (an opponent of #Gamergate) to be shown some “love” (ie anything but) after the latter made a song mocking the celebrity in question. Fortunately, those who responded to the call for “love” seemed to do so mostly to say they couldn’t stand to listen to Mann’s work for long enough to bother him.

While this is not admirable behavior, it cannot be lost on the reader that one of an allegedly misogynistic movement’s confirmed targets is a male human being with the last name “Mann,” just in case you forgot his sex. Mann himself, who hosts an entire playlist titled “F**k yeah I’m an SJW,” is certainly ideologically out of step with the movement, but his presence as one of its targets is just the most ironic example that proves a deeper truth: The claim that #Gamergate is monolithically misogynistic – a claim usually supported by a highly selective listing of its most high profile targets, and by the fact that its supporters tend to be white males – has been refuted comprehensively, and at great length by multiple sources. At worst, the movement can be said to only target ideological feminists (and only some variants of those), which is far from a representative sample of the fairer sex.

All of this is to say that #Gamergate could really use what those of us in the political reporting business call a “Sister Souljah” moment — a very public denunciation of extremist allies that press agents have no choice but to cover. Until that time, the spectre of violence will probably continue to hang over the hashtag like the sword of Damocles, with every incidence of video-game related internet anger threatening to bring it down. This is not fair to the movement, but it is how perception management works, fair or no.

However, as with the other facts that #Gamergate’s opponents have propagated to discredit it, the fact that harassment, death threats and abuse have taken place under its flag gives an actively malicious picture of the situation. Even #Gamergate’s opponents admit that the majority of the movement are not extremists, but if this is true, then the fact that a few extremists derail its message would seem highly unfair to lay at the movement’s door collectively. Gamergate’s opponents have a ready rejoinder to this in the form of an amusing (if uncharitable) webcomic that treats a “moderate #Gamergater” as the functional equivalent of someone standing next to a mugger and profiting off of that mugger’s theft while claiming to abhor his behavior. “Please understand, I do NOT condone this guy’s actions, he does NOT represent me, but you should probably do as he says,” the ‘moderate #Gamergater’ analogue says.

In other words, even if most of the movement disapproves of violence and harassment perpetrated under its banner by misogynists and/or trolls, it still profits from their existence due to their hardball tactics, and is therefore complicit with them. Moreover, the argument goes, even by virtue of being associated with the violent harassers, the entire movement is discredited.

Even by the standards of politics, the second part of this argument is terrible guilt by association. To illustrate the absurdity of the “#Gamergate cannot be redeemed from its worst supporters” argument, consider that many neo-Nazis supported President Obama during his campaign in 2008, yet no one except perhaps the most insane Alex Jones listener would suggest that President Obama himself is a Nazi, or that his campaign for president was discredited by this association with Nazis, especially in light of President Obama’s repeated condemnations of racism.

Similarly, #Gamergate’s supporters have denounced harassment not merely as individuals, but even through their institutional fronts. For instance, the front page of the Kotakuinaction subreddit, one of #Gamergate’s many home bases, includes the sentence, “We condemn censorship, exclusion, harassment and abuse.” Moreover, the movement attempted to set up an institutional “harassment patrol” (though evidence shows that the anarchic nature of Twitter has derailed this) in order to combat precisely that. Needless to say, this is enough evidence to believe that the movement makes its condemnations of harassment in good faith, even if it cannot stop every misbehaving member.

However, the first part of the argument – that #Gamergate profits from the harassment because those doing the harassing can exact concessions more brutally than moderates – is more interesting, due to its sweeping nature. That is, this idea – that profiting from violence or extremism even under protest discredits a movement — is not merely an indictment of #Gamergate, but of practically every mass movement in history. By this standard, for instance, Martin Luther King Jr would’ve had to consider the entire Civil Rights movement discredited by the violence of Malcolm X. Nelson Mandela’s willingness to use violence as a leader of the anti-Apartheid movement would have killed it in its crib. Even Gandhi – yes, Gandhi – arguably would be censured under this standard because of his viciously racist attitudes toward “kaffirs,” ie black people. And that’s not even touching the influence of Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Gandhi’s struggle.

Of course, it’s not just noble or even progressive causes that have profited from violent or extreme supporters. One has no doubt that well-mannered segregationists probably had their cause advanced by the Ku Klux Klan, for instance, and while 1964 Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was himself a member of the NAACP, his principled opposition to civil rights legislation probably won him at least some of his votes from less principled but more hateful people. But the point is not that #Gamergate is comparable to segregationists, or to Gandhi. Rather, it is that having violent and/or extreme members is an inevitable side effect of creating a successful mass movement. To suggest that a movement is automatically discredited the instant extremists enter the picture is to discredit all of movement politics.

In fact, even #Gamergate’s opponents themselves cannot live up to this stringent requirement. One study of the tweets spawned by the hashtag showed that violent and harassing tweets account for a minuscule fraction of the tweets by both supporters and opponents of the movement. Ironically, however, harassing tweets by opponents dwarfed the number of similar tweets by supporters. As for what those harassing tweets might look like, the “Gamergate Harassment” Tumblr has collected a wide spectrum of them, including at least one from an individual who holds a high level position at a gaming publication – a media scandal in its own right.

And just like the supporters of the movement, some of #Gamergate’s opponents have recognized the need to purge their movement of bad apples. Randi Harper, the woman responsible for the now clearly overzealously curated #Gamergate Twitter “block list,” recently pleaded with her fellow #Gamergate opponents to stop sending her personal information for #Gamergate supporters. “The doxxing is a problem that has to stop,” Harper wrote. Amen.

However, Wu’s article is focused purely on death threats, and this is a persistent meme where #Gamergate is concerned, often used by its enemies to justify their own harassment. And it is true that Wu is not the first opponent of the movement to receive death threats, nor to garner publicity from their existence; in fact, feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian got a great deal of attention when she canceled a speech at Utah State University following similar threats, at least one of which was investigated by the FBI. Though in the interest of fairness, one should note that the threat that was investigated made absolutely no mention of #Gamergate, and seems to have been motivated by anti-feminist animus more generally.

But let’s assume that Sarkeesian has received #Gamergate-related death threats, even if that particular one wasn’t such a case (not a very hard presumption to make). In that situation, Sarkeesian’s case is relevant not merely because it provides a parallel, but also because it raises an important question: How seriously should these death threats be taken? Well, according to Utah State University itself, the threats against Sarkeesian weren’t serious at all:

Throughout the day, Tuesday, Oct. 14, USU police and administrators worked with state and federal law enforcement agencies to assess the threat to our USU community and Ms. Sarkeesian. Together, we determined that there was no credible threat to students, staff or the speaker, and that this letter was intended to frighten the university into cancelling the event.

In other words, these threats were acts of petty terrorism that were never meant to be carried out. Nevertheless, Sarkeesian pulled out of giving her speech due to anger at the university refusing to suspend its compliance with Utah’s concealed carry laws. This despite the fact that law enforcement (up to the FBI) apparently thought none of the death threats were credible.

It is at this point that several #Gamergaters are probably rushing for their keyboards, hoping to convince the author that Brianna Wu is lying about all her harassment (with pictures that purport to show her sitting in her house to prove it), and so is Anita Sarkeesian, because they’re dirty feminist propagandists who don’t play fair. To give these overzealous people some credit, it is poor practice for a journalist to repeat the existence of alleged threats as fact without first asking to see proof. And to also be fair, faking assaults, threats and other forms of violence in order to garner sympathy is a well-worn political tactic, used primarily by the Left, though not exclusively. Some skepticism in the face of women with a reputation for lying and self-promotion (especially considering that one is using her harassment to drum up support for her Patreon fundraiser) is understandable, in view of these facts.

Nevertheless, the author finds the actual evidence against Sarkeesian and Wu’s accusations unconvincing (to say the least), and also regards it as more productive to treat their threats as genuine because it enables a more frank discussion about the real points at issue.

To be clear, receiving a death threat – especially the sort that Sarkeesian and Wu claim to have received – is never a pleasant experience. This author received a few at an old place of employment related to an article about the Trayvon Martin case, and can attest to their being frightening and disheartening, sometimes to extreme degrees. And certainly, having an avowed white nationalist gang leader post a video proclaiming his intention to kill you must be terrifying, even if the video was a serious tactical misstep on his part. We can take these threats as seriously in a moral sense as we like, but on some level, it behooves us to also ask how frightened we should be by them, if only to spare the nerves of their recipients.

And there are surely cases where the answer to that question is “not frightened at all.” The internet is littered with instances of pathetically unserious death threats, for instance this video. Those sorts of threats are sources of ghoulish comedy more than horror, and rightly so, for the people making them are embarrassing themselves with their attempts at inspiring fear. The aforementioned Encyclopedia Dramatica even has a name for this species of “too big for their britches” internet user – the “Internet Tough Guy.”

And speaking of Encyclopedia Dramatica, this brings us to the truly painful question that has gone ignored throughout #Gamergate and gives much-needed context to the discussion of harassment. That is, what do you do when death threats are part of the culture of entire communities of people? How do you separate the genuine ones from the culturally expected and harmless ones? And no, for the record, that is not a reference to either side of the debate, but rather to the websites and communities from which both sides draw their supporters. For the sake of brevity, three examples suffice – the online gaming community itself, the Chan network of sites, and Tumblr’s social justice community.

Start with the gaming community. Anyone who’s spent even half a few hours on a first person shooter on Xbox live, or on Ventrilo with a particularly overexcited player, has probably come across the phenomenon of an enemy screaming obscenities and death threats into their headset. Those sheltered souls who have not are invited to listen to the darkly hilarious “Stole my Cloudsong” incident from the very old “Dark Age of Camelot” roleplaying game, or to the infamous “Duke Nukem” Ventrilo harassment, both of which involve death threats shrieked at far too close range into a microphone by anonymous gamers (“I’m gonna kill you, motherf—er, old style,” and “If I ever find out where you live, I’mma f—king kill you” being two notable examples). These death threats are self-evidently unserious, and are best considered as the unfortunate byproduct of emotions running high in very competitive atmospheres, where they serve as a proxy for one player believing another has committed a serious social faux pas.

It’s worth noting at this point that most of the people who are subjected to this specific type of harassment in games are male, according to a Pew study on online harassment. This is not to suggest that women are never harassed, but rather to suggest something more subtle: That to the extent Wu and Sarkeesian’s harassers are male gamers, they may simply be treating these women as they themselves expect to be treated in spaces devoted to gaming, especially when behaving in a controversial or frowned-upon way. Far from this being a sign of lack of inclusion, in other words, this treatment is actually how “one of the guys” would be treated.

And then there’s Chan culture, as embodied by sites such as 4chan and 8chan, both known sources of #Gamergate supporters. 4chan, known even among its supporters as “the a—hole of the internets,” is a veritable playground of trolls, who live to stir up anger on the part of particularly excitable, unstable and/or pathetic victims (“lolcows,” in Encyclopedia Dramatica’s terminology). And note that 4chan users do not exempt themselves from this category – in fact, it’s considered a badge of honor to successfully anger each other, since trolls are supposed to have thicker skins. 8chan, being essentially a carbon copy of 4chan which gained notoriety after the former site banned all discussion of #Gamergate, abides by the same norms.

This cannot be emphasized enough: 4chan’s users, and pretty much all trolls, should have their words taken with a metaphorical truckload of salt. Their behavior is easy to misconstrue as sadistic cruelty, when in fact it is only disingenuous. To see this, one need only look at the famous catchphrase employed by trolls – “The Internet is serious business.” This phrase, also popularized by 4chan, should be read as practically dripping with irony, for it is meant to mock those who take what happens on the confines of the internet too seriously. In fact, those who use the phrase would argue, what happens on the internet is not serious at all, and those who attract the attention of trolls should simply shrug their shoulders, say “LOL internet,” and ignore their attackers. And unless the trolls in question escalate to the point of taking things offline, this is fairly good advice, since angry reactions are what the people in question live to inspire. “Don’t feed the trolls” is a catchphrase for this reason. 4chan follows that instruction so well that at least one highly unserious death threat has become an internet meme on its own thanks to their efforts.

So in other words, this is a community devoted to doing and saying hurtful things unseriously in the hopes of fooling their targets into reacting irrationally. You know what makes people react irrationally? Death threats. So once more, we have a case where such “threats” are actually not worth listening to. To be sure, a disturbed person could use 4chan’s disingenuous culture as cover for their own genuine threats of violence, but they’d have a hard time. As a community, 4chan goes out of its way to report any threats that sound too genuine, resulting in at least a few arrests.

In short, the main communities from which #Gamergate draws – online gamers and 4chan users – are prone to making unserious death threats, in one case to blow off steam, and in another to make its targets publicly implode. If nothing else, Brianna Wu should feel reassured – it would seem she’s not actually “risking her life,” if these are the people threatening her.

To be clear, what is being argued here is not pure cultural relativism, whereby anyone who is not a member of these communities just “doesn’t get it.” There is plenty of room to condemn the way these communities use death threats, which in this author’s opinion is immature at best and outright reckless at worst. However, it is important to know what to condemn, and whatever else we may say about these threats, it is important to remember that in the vast majority of cases, we are actively misinforming ourselves if we treat them as genuine statements of intent to do harm. We may regard, for instance, black people who use a certain slur beginning with “n” as using a tasteless term, but we surely cannot confuse their intentions with those of, say, Klan members who use the same word with very different intentions and in very different contexts. If one snuck up on the boy who cried wolf wearing a wolf-shaped mask, one would still be partially culpable for exciting his mendacious tendencies, but one would by no means be an actual wolf. Similarly, the gulf between gamers and trolls who use terroristic language and actual terrorists is impassably wide.

This leaves the social justice community on Tumblr, which is a major source of much of the anti-#Gamergate community’s membership. In fact, the term “Social Justice Warrior” started as a derogatory term for overzealous Tumblr and Livejournal users. And ironically, despite their almost Maoist self-censorship when it comes to language policing on other topics, death threats have become part and parcel of social justice warrior discourse as well. The infamous phrase “Die cis[gendered] scum,” used by some members of the transgendered social justice community, is emblematic of this.

So, for that matter, is the sad case of Ashley Rae Goldenberg, aka CommunismKills, a rare Tumblr user who blogs from a conservative point of view. Goldenberg has been a consistent thorn in the side of social justice bloggers arguably since at least 2012, yet it was only with her posting a poem commenting on the shooting of Michael Brown that brought a major response. To be completely fair, the poem was insensitive, bearing the following lines:

There was once was a thug named Brown
Who bum-rushed a cop with a frown
Six bullets later
He met his creator
Then his homies burnt down the town

The reader can pass whatever judgment he or she likes on the tastefulness or wit of this piece, but one thing that is inarguable is that the response by Tumblr’s social justice community would frighten almost anyone. Shortly after the posting of the poem, Goldenberg’s phone number and address, as well as that of her mother, were exposed to the internet at large, and soon Goldenberg was receiving hundreds of calls and texts from angry users mocking, belittling and, predictably, threatening her. Unfortunately, the same was true of her mother, who allegedly received the following message from an angry social justice warrior:

You nasty ugly f—k face c—t. ill do more than burn your house down. Ill (sic) rape ur stupid s—t f—k daughters decapitate them and send you their butcher bodies.

This, however, was where what should have been frightening instead became farcical, as the people responsible increasingly attempted to escalate their attacks, only to be thwarted by their own incompetence. For instance, the social justice community claimed it had stolen Goldenberg’s mother’s credit card number (the link for the information is now dead), and incitements were made to steal her mother’s identity. Yet in an email correspondence, Goldenberg stated to the author that these threats later turned out to be false.

“A lot of what Tumblr users do is just talk,” Goldenberg said. “For example, they claimed to have my mother’s credit card information and were making purchases with it. They justified this by saying she raised me; therefore, she must also be to blame for whatever I post on my own blog. It turns out, they never actually knew my mother’s credit card number.”

The social justice warriors even actively contacted the Title IX office at Goldenberg’s college, hoping to get her expelled (this much is public knowledge, as the users in question openly stated their intentions). A summons was issued to Goldenberg by that office. However, Goldenberg noted that as soon as the Title IX office was informed of the campaign to secure Goldenberg’s expulsion, they dropped the issue instantly. “Tumblr users like to think they have a lot more power than they actually do, that they hold someone’s future in their hands and can be uber leet haxors using this information,” Goldenberg wrote. “This really isn’t the case.”

Now, insightful readers should notice a key distinction between this case, and the case of Wu, Sarkeesian et al. That is, no criminal activity actually occurred in the latter cases – in fact, the police wrote off the prospect of such activity preemptively. In contrast, criminal activity was at least attempted by Goldenberg’s attackers, though again, their own incompetence proved a greater deterrent than any police presence. In fact, Goldenberg and her mother never contacted the police because no such attempts ever succeeded.

Nevertheless, the fact that Tumblr’s threats would carry some follow through while 4chan’s wouldn’t was eminently predictable. The painful earnestness of Tumblr’s social justice discourse would logically extend to its threats. As Goldenberg said of Tumblr, “Tumblr users, mostly young teenagers, are indoctrinated in to their social justice idealism. They believe what they are doing is morally right … One of the latest Tumblr campaigns is ‘GettingRacistsFired.’ As you’d expect, it’s filled with people doxxing other people who said things that could potentially be viewed as offensive … It’s nothing more than a silencing tactic. You disagree with me? Have your life ruined. You don’t deserve to be able to speak.”

In contrast, the irony of 4chan and the short-lived rage of the online gaming community would naturally produce threats that are by definition unserious. Which of these threats should we, therefore, pay more attention to? It would seem that, in general, the ones from the social justice community are far more likely to be serious. Though, of course, the usual caveats about taking extremists as representative of massive groups apply as much here as they do in the case of #Gamergate.

Moreover, it should be noted that even from extremists within this hyper-earnest community, death threats do not result in acts of attempted murder, most likely because even the most hyperventilating social justice warrior is unwilling to risk a murder charge. Which brings us full circle to #Gamergate and the “threats” it has allegedly produced.

If #Gamergate’s opponents and its supporters can agree on one thing, it is surely that the least restrained, most unstable and most self-indulgent members of their respective camps should not have their immaturity validated by being accorded the status of domestic terrorists. This cheapens the definition of terrorism and inadvertently flatters every spoiled brat with a computer by putting them on the same moral level as actual committed criminals. Moreover, it grants them a capacity to inspire fear that is neither warranted nor desirable in a society where offense-taking is already accorded far too great a level of respect.

How does one respond? Well, Goldenberg herself seems to have taken the appropriate lesson from her failed doxxing. “Needless to say, I’m not silent. If anything, I’m less afraid now than before to speak my mind since the worst thing that can happen to someone online (doxxing) has already happened to me,” she wrote. Not merely Brianna Wu, but Sony pictures, should take notes: This is how you respond to would-be terrorists.

The truth is that those who have sent harassment and death threats to Brianna Wu, Anita Sarkeesian, or Ashley Rae Goldenberg are not brave freedom fighters, contrary to whatever self-serving and insular mythology they have lapped up like pigs at the trough. They are, instead, spoiled children, and spoiled children deserve only the status of getting a time-out, not of being a ticking time bomb. Unfortunately, it seems they have found equally self-serving and tone deaf nemeses in Wu and Sarkeesian.

Neither the 12 year olds (and people with equal maturity) on Xbox Live, nor the most juvenile trolls of 4chan, nor the most histrionic and unstable social justice warriors on Tumblr will likely ever kill anyone, whatever other petty crimes such extremists commit. So why pretend that they could, especially in the case of #Gamergate? Perhaps for some, the moral status of victimhood is sufficient incentive to sacrifice truth on the altar of raising consciousness. But they are raising neither consciousness nor the quality of discourse. They are raising hell, and slinging mud. We would all do well to leave them to their self-imposed ideological trenches and refuse to fight the war.