When the Internet Breeds Hate

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Written by Chrisella Herzog

“I’m looking you up, and when I find you, I’m going to rape you and remove your head. You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you. I promise you this.”

This message was sent in a series of tweets to journalist Amanda Hess, but the truth is women online receive messages similar to this every day. In nearly all cases, women are sent these messages simply for stating an opinion online that someone disagreed with.

It is not a new phenomenon, certainly; groups such as women who play online video games or women of color on Twitter have long complained of gendered harassment for daring to even show up, which often escalates to threats of violence when they stand their ground. According to Hess, “Feminine usernames incur an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine usernames received 3.7.” But late last summer, it burst into the public consciousness in a more violent—and more organized—way.

In August 2014, independent game developer Zoe Quinn had already undergone about 18 months of harassment for her game, Depression Quest. Shortly after the release of her game on Steam in August, a bitter and jilted ex-boyfriend published a screed online claiming Quinn had an affair with a games journalist in order to get good reviews for her game, and the harassment exploded. Despite the allegations being false, Quinn and her family were viciously attacked—she was doxxed, her personal accounts hacked, her stolen nude photos circulated among her harassers, and she was called awful names in all corners of the internet. Organized campaigns were set up with the sole purpose of trying to get her to kill herself. After right-wing actor Adam Baldwin joined in the conversation—criticizing the media for trying to “enforce arbitrary ‘social justice’ rules upon gamers & the culture”—the harassment coalesced under the hashtag he shared: #GamerGate.

Although the movement was ostensibly a “consumer revolt” advocating for “ethics in games journalism”, the movement’s progression showed that what motivated ‘GamerGaters’ was not ethical concerns, but rather a reactionary conservative backlash against the increasingly high-profile encroachment of women into the perceived male spaces of gaming and technology. Video game critic Anita Sarkeesian was targeted after a new episode in her YouTube series criticizing the portrayal of women in video games was released in the midst of GamerGate’s formation. Beyond the doxxing and rape/death threats, Sarkeesian also received an anonymous threat of a mass shooting when she was scheduled to speak at Utah State University—a threat signed with the moniker ‘Mark Lepine’, a reference to the 1989 Montreal Massacre shooter who killed 14 women in the name of “fighting feminism”. Brianna Wu, another indie game developer who has spoken out on the challenges of women in the games industry, became a target after she shared a meme on Twitter that was critical of GamerGate; she has spoken out multiple times about how traumatizing and exhausting the harassment of her family has been, as well as how damaging it has been to the industry as a whole. (She told VentureBeat recently how a woman she hired asked not to have her name used publicly anywhere.) Her harassment has also included numerous instances of transphobic slurs, despite the fact that she is not transgender. However, other transgender feminists have been targets for GamerGates’s harassment and violence to an extreme degree—campaigns were organized around trolling support boards to trigger widespread suicide in the transgender community, and several of the most outspoken trans GamerGate critics were “swatted”.

Swatting has become the most striking example of how violence on the internet has spilled over into real life. The “prank” involves making an anonymous call to police claiming a crisis situation, such as a bomb plot or a hostage crisis, at the target’s home address, which was usually revealed through doxxing. The intention is to get the police force to mobilize its SWAT team and break down the front door of the target. Although the use of swatting began before GamerGate’s inception, the movement has taken great glee in its use, openly hoping that someone dies from their “joke”.

Over the course of six months, GamerGate became the melting pot for the worst of the internet. Violent sexism, homophobia, and transphobia have been the most common and outspoken sentiments of GamerGate, but not far beneath the surface are virulent strains of anti-Semitism, racism, and neo Nazism. As the movement progressed, the rhetoric began parroting concepts from white supremacy groups, men’s rights advocates, and a popular culture perception of the military. When the movement became too extreme, Reddit put restrictions on the movement’s “operations” and email campaigns, and even the notorious 4chan removed any discussion of GamerGate from its boards. Angered about the perceived attack on their “free speech”, the movement found refuge on 8chan, a discussion board site described by The Washington Post as “the most lawless, more libertarian, more ‘free’ follow-up to 4chan.” The site’s founder, Frederick Brennan—a man who wrote a pro-eugenics article for the neo-Nazi website, The Daily Stormer—made 8chan to combat what he perceived as a loss of free speech on the internet.

Things quickly went downhill, as 8chan became the place where bits of the dark web bled over: private information on anyone deemed to be an enemy is listed with a wink to the hostile and angry audience; threads discussing how to destroy lives scatter across the different themed boards; credit card accounts and Social Security Numbers are listed for sale next to doxxes for hire (for the measly sum of $5 to $200). And worst of all on the site: child pornography was freely shared until the site was called out for it and its domain temporarily revoked.

What happened in GamerGate that brought out the very worst of the internet, and turned an ostensibly grassroots consumer revolt into a hate group? U.S. law has established that free speech is protected until it becomes dangerous or injurious (libel, slander, hate speech), but it is very common for law enforcement to brush off threats as not serious. Harassment and online stalking laws are largely based in an era before the internet; until 2013, the Violence Against Women Act only criminalized abusive, threatening, or harassing speech over the telephone. When Congress proposed an amendment to the law, the Electronic Frontier Foundation opposed the amendment, saying, “A person is free to disregard something said on Twitter in a way far different than a person who is held in constant fear of the persistent ringing of a telephone intruding in their home.”

It’s the same refrain: harassment online somehow is less than ‘real’, and restricting free speech in order to combat something seemingly so ‘harmless’ is poor policy.

But like swatting, the violent and racist rhetoric does not stay online anymore. White supremacist groups have moved away from large organizations into smaller cells, which use the internet to recruit from boards full of angry, disenfranchised young men. In 2012, one such man went to a Sikh temple in Wisconson with a gun and a head full of violent music glorifying the white race; he killed six worshippers. Anders Behring Breivik was also involved in white supremacist online groups, as were many other mass murderers over the past few years. Similar online tactics have been used by ISIS, which has garnered much attention for its strategic social media use and its ability to convince Western youth to run away and join their cause. Jeffery Simon wrote about the use of internet communities to radicalize small cells or individuals and incite them to violence in his book, Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat.

In GamerGate, the dehumanization of Quinn, Sarkeesian, and Wu (labeled as “Literally Who” 1, 2, and 3) and the violent threats against them have driven some to take action offline. Beyond the shooting threat against Sarkeesian, Quinn is still unable to return to her home as there are still reports of strangers appearing in her neighborhood and yard; on January 31st, Wu shared on Twitter a video of a man who claimed he had crashed his car on his way to kill her, and that ‘The Commander’ (as he named himself) had been threatening her for weeks with no action from law enforcement. (The man was later revealed to be a hoax, when comedian Jan Rankowski revealed he had made up the character, proving the increasing relevance of Poe’s Law on today’s internet.)

Other women online continue to receive daily harassment as well. And the harassers know that the repercussions of their actions are likely to be minimal—the worst punishment most ever see is their Twitter account suspended, even though they can just create another account.

GamerGate has at least brought attention to the amount of harassment and hate that flies around casually online. To the detriment of the industry, hate from reactionary gamers has re-emerged as a popular culture stereotype—it was even turned into a Law & Order SVU episode. However, there has been increasing media coverage of the lack of legal protections and police action for harassment victims, and the attention has reached federal levels, including Congress, which is reportedly considering stronger protections for cyber harassment victims.

Currently, online spaces are involuntary battlefields. Women who raise their profile at all in virtual spaces are deemed to be encroachers, and therefore ‘fair game’ for any kind of treatment. Will the harassment end only when women’s voices are silenced?

Chrisella Herzog is the Editor-in-Chief of WhiteHat Magazine, and was previously Managing Editor of Diplomatic Courier. She can be found on Twitter at @Chrisella.