You heard me!
First, some qualification: this is primarily about the Internet as used in America, in the English language. Things may be different in other places and in other languages. I am not familiar with them.
I’ve been a regular Internet user since 1996. I had some prior experiences with Prodigy’s Internet service in the early 1990s, but it hardly counts since all I did was play MadMaze. It was in 1996 that I got my first real exposure to the Internet as a social phenomenon. I had just moved to Alaska and was starting high school, and unlike the school district I’d come from, this one had modern, Internet-connected computers. I quickly learned about personal web pages (with the ubiquitous “under construction” GIFs), and then I found something that I’d always wanted but didn’t realize existed: message forums!
In truth, these were simply Web-based versions of technologies that existed for decades in the form of Usenet and dial-up Bulletin Board Systems. I didn’t know that at the time. This was brand new territory for me, and I loved it. I was very much into comic books at the time, so I started hunting down comic book-related forums. I just so happened to come across a relatively small one with only a few dozen members. It had already been around a couple years by that point, so it had a history and it members who’d been there since the beginning, plus a steady influx of people who were referred by existing members or happened across it the way I did, through online indexes and search engines. (I could probably write an entire post about how curated site indexes eventually gave way to essentially flat search engines like Google. Another day, perhaps.)
It was fun, at first. Over the years, in fact, I had a lot of fun. But there was always a dark side. Back then, there were flame wars. People got banned. There were accusations of stalking and harassment. These were small sites run by a handful of people, or just one person. Order was kept by having rules and punishing people who violated them. While everyone was more or less anonymous, your activities were tied to your handle, and that gave you a reputation–something to lose. Some folks knew each other personally. People who met on these forums got married. And yet, every so often, someone would come along who had no ambition except to sow discord where once was peace. Such a person would swiftly be banned, first by their user account, and then by IP address (or an entire address range) if they persisted.
Denial-of-service (DoS) attacks didn’t really exist back then, much less the distributed kind (DDoS) we have now. Sites like Reddit and 4chan didn’t exist, either, nor did groups like Anonymous or movements like GamerGate. Crucially, social media wasn’t around, either. This was also the pre-9⁄11 age. All of these details matter, because in combination they produce a disturbing mixture–an environment where determined stalkers can move in relative anonymity, inflict grievous harm to reputations, violate personal safety, then retreat back into the ether, rarely facing consequences.
First, who are these people? I’ve seen them in various incarnations over the years. The people associating themselves with the GamerGate label now are not that different from people who have populated various other sites, at least since the late 1990s. They are usually young, in their teens and early twenties. It probably goes without saying that they are almost always male, too. Sooner or later, a young man comes across one of these communities and finds that it speaks to him–that its members hate society as much as he does. Where others reject him, these people are accepting. They are kindred spirits. At their absolute worst, these people take their anger and rage to its full conclusion and go on killing sprees. Most, however, settle for “merely” engaging in Internet-based terror, and that is my focus here.
There have always existed groups that took their anonymity and disdain for society at large and used them as weapons. What has changed are their options for inflicting damage. The idea of SWATting someone, for instance, by calling the police on someone you’ve targeted and accusing them of a terrorist attack–this only works in a post-9⁄11 environment where law enforcement officials are already hypervigilant. Thus far, no one’s been killed in such an incident, but on that count I think we have simply been very, very lucky. Even without SWATting, running afoul of the wrong person (or group) can get you doxxed, which sees your personal information–name, address, phone number, friends, family members–disseminated for the sole purpose of harassing you and others in your life. If you’ve not experienced it, it may not sound like a big deal, but imagine getting phone calls day after day, night after night, people telling you to kill yourself. Imagine your friends, your parents, your siblings being called and told that you’re a whore, that you’re a child molester, that you’re some kind of inhuman monster. Imagine your employers being called and told you are engaged in illegal activities and that they need to fire you. This is life as the target of an online hate mob.
Social media makes it easy to be a victim. Facebook encourages us to use our real names, and to post publicly. It wants our pictures, our phone numbers, our email addresses. It wants to know who our friends are. Most of us, being the trusting sort, hand it over. We want it to be easy for our friends and family to contact us, after all, and we have a lot of funny pictures and personal stories to share.
But sooner or later, a bad experience teaches us the value of keeping some things to ourselves. If we’re fortunate, the fallout isn’t too severe. Perhaps it’s being caught in a misstatement. Perhaps it’s making a joke that your friends will understand, but having forgotten the fact that you’re posting publicly, you are horrified to learn that your joke has spread far and wide as an example of what a racist (or insert other form of bigotry) you are. Perhaps you lose friends over it. Perhaps you lose your job. This is a thing that happens to people. Personally, I go back and forth on whether I think such reactions are appropriate. While having bigoted opinions isn’t illegal, imparting expressions of those opinions with a personal cost is not necessarily out of line. If nothing else, some people have learned very painful lessons by not being careful what they say, by not thinking about who might be listening–what kind of person might spend all day trawling through Twitter feeds just to find one juicy 140-character spew that’ll ruin someone’s life.
Even if you think this form of public retribution is sometimes appropriate, a significant problem with it is that it can easily be turned on people who’ve not done anything particularly wrong. The trouble with mobs is that everyone outside the mob just wants it to go away, and will tend to take the shortest, easiest path toward making that happen. This is the approach that underpins GamerGate and its sundry, assorted hangers-on. The name “GamerGate” doesn’t even mean anything at this point–it’s merely a convenient label to slap on an amorphous group of people who engage in similar tactics of harassment, stalking, and intimidation. It’s not an ideological group that could be said to stand for anything coherent or cognizable to outsiders. Instead, its purpose is to hound people–almost all women–who are despised for little reason other than being women associated with video games and the video game industry. A recent example would be the case of former Nintendo employee Alison Rapp, who was targeted by GamerGate months ago in a case of mistaken identity. That the mob had gone after the wrong person certainly didn’t deter them. Even when she was fired from Nintendo–supposedly the original goal in all this–that wasn’t enough. She and her family and friends were subsequently treated to doxxing and harassment.
Zoe Quinn, the original GamerGate target, still faces daily harassment. Anita Sarkeesian, similarly thrashed for being a woman with opinions that certain men don’t like, continues to receive torrents of vitriol mixed with threats every time she makes an appearance online (but, thus far, no one has dared attempt a physical altercation). Add to this list Brianna Wu, Randi Harper, Alison Rapp, and countless others. These are human beings dealing with constant threats and harassment, having their every move followed, their every post dissected, spread around, and used as fodder for future attacks. They must closely guard their personal information not just to protect themselves, but their friends and loved ones. Victims of this hate mob can become unemployable–imagine how a prospective employer would react if they googled your name and the top results are calling you a “bitch” and a “slut.” Few businesses want to deal with that kind of attention, regardless of the fact that the focus of such harassment did nothing wrong.
The American legal system is completely inadequate for tackling these sorts of problems, nor are there good technical solutions to implement in the interim. As the Internet becomes a more and more integral part of our daily lives, the risk of being victimized by running afoul of the wrong person or group only grows. Anonymity–once a valued characteristic of the Internet, given that it enabled people otherwise silenced to have a voice–is instead more often used as a weapon to intimidate and harass. GamerGate’s many targets are anything but anonymous. They may have liked to remain mostly unknown, but becoming the focal points of such enduring rage has deprived them of that luxury. Meanwhile, those who actually carry out attacks–the SWATters, the doxxers, the harassers, the stalkers, the accusers–they hide behind proxy servers, behind pseudonyms, and behind weak legal protections.
The impetus for this post, I must confess, is the recent targeting of an online community I am part of, by this very same hate mob. Because it is a place that even tries to be friendly to women, because it doesn’t tolerate bigotry, because it tries to have standards higher than YouTube comments and newspaper comment sections, it was targeted. Posts were copied and archived. Efforts were made to identify individuals, likely as a prelude to future harassment. It’s a community that’s never gone out of its way to bother anyone, and yet merely existing made it a target. Anything good on the sprawling Internet must be protected fiercely, lest it be attacked by people who believe in nothing but their own hatred.
It’s hard not to become cynical when you see people who’ve done nothing–people who have no notoriety, no name recognition, no public face at all–get targeted for nothing more than existing as themselves on the Internet. It’s as if GamerGate isn’t merely about hating women, but about hating sincerity, hating goodness–hating anything that isn’t a sort of ironic detachment from human experience, as if caring about things is a weakness, and being honest about your feelings is an opening to exploit.
Sometimes, I am tempted to let the garbagemen of the Internet just continue piling into the landfill, because it seems impossible to shovel the shit out fast enough.