Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Tuesday, January 3, 2017 7:18 pm

Lindy West, Gamergate, and the alt-right Nazis

Feminist writer and educator Lindy West quit Twitter today because Nazis:

Twitter, for the past five years, has been a machine where I put in unpaid work and tension headaches come out. I write jokes there for free. I post political commentary for free. I answer questions for free. I teach feminism 101 for free. Off Twitter, these are all things by which I make my living – in fact, they comprise the totality of my income. But on Twitter, I do them pro bono and, in return, I am micromanaged in real time by strangers; neo-Nazis mine my personal life for vulnerabilities to exploit; and men enjoy unfettered, direct access to my brain so they can inform me, for the thousandth time, that they would gladly rape me if I weren’t so fat.

 

That wasn’t why she quit though, or wasn’t what prompted her to pull the trigger. No, that was something rather more than personal:

I hate to disappoint anyone, but the breaking point for me wasn’t the trolls themselves (if I have learned anything from the dark side of Twitter, it is how to feel nothing when a frog calls you a cunt) – it was the global repercussions of Twitter’s refusal to stop them. The white supremacist, anti-feminist, isolationist, transphobic “alt-right” movement has been beta-testing its propaganda and intimidation machine on marginalised Twitter communities for years now – how much hate speech will bystanders ignore? When will Twitter intervene and start protecting its users? – and discovered, to its leering delight, that the limit did not exist. No one cared. Twitter abuse was a grand-scale normalisation project, disseminating libel and disinformation, muddying long-held cultural givens such as “racism is bad” and “sexual assault is bad” and “lying is bad” and “authoritarianism is bad”, and ultimately greasing the wheels for Donald Trump’s ascendance to the US presidency. Twitter executives did nothing.

On 29 December, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted: “What’s the most important thing you want to see Twitter improve or create in 2017?” One user responded: “Comprehensive plan for getting rid of the Nazis.”

“We’ve been working on our policies and controls,” Dorsey replied. “What’s the next most critical thing?” Oh, what’s our second-highest priority after Nazis? I’d say No 2 is also Nazis. And No 3. In fact, you can just go ahead and slide “Nazis” into the top 100 spots. Get back to me when your website isn’t a roiling rat-king of Nazis. Nazis are bad, you see?

Well, yes, Nazis* are bad, and Twitter isn’t the only medium or social medium wrestling with what, exactly, to do about that. Still, Twitter has been almost unique in its ratio of encouraging talk to gross inaction. And I suspect that, as with most problems, it probably comes down to money.

What I mean by that is this. I’ve been online in various ways for going on 30 years, and in all that time I have yet to see an online community that wasn’t ruined by, for lack of a better term, trolls in the absence of moderators. (For the first decade or so of my life online, I wasn’t convinced moderators were necessary; not for the first time, I admit I was wrong.) But moderating takes time, and time takes money, and over its life as a public company (i.e., since late 2013), Twitter has, per generally accepted accounting principles, never made money. Since its 2006 founding, it has burned through more than $2 billion. And its user growth has slowed to the point at which near- to medium-term profits look unlikely.

More to the point, though, CEO Jack Dorsey has never said anything publicly that suggests to me that he truly understands that he has a problem. But he does. As Leigh Alexander (no relation) wrote in the context of Gamergate, “When you decline to create or to curate a culture in your spaces, you’re responsible for what spawns in the vacuum.”

Dorsey, his executives and his board absolutely have a moral obligation to users of their service not to let that service become a sinkhole of Nazi shit. And for a lot of people who don’t look like me — a cishet middle-aged, white, until-recently-Republican male — it already is.

Moreover, I would argue that they have an obligation to their shareholders not to let the service become a sinkhole of Nazi shit, because while that might give you a profitable quarter or two, it spells doom for the business’s long-term financial interests and those of its shareholders.

And, finally, I would argue that they have an obligation to the public in general, in the U.S. and abroad, not to allow their service to become a sinkhole of Nazi shit because Nazi shit is gaining popularity and causing problems around the world. It is competing with Vlad Putin right now as the No. 1 danger to small-l liberal democracy worldwide. And it should be denied any foothold it attempts to seek. Twitter isn’t just a medium anymore; it’s also an organizing and fundraising tool. Dorsey et al. need to deny its benefits to Nazis and their backers.

And it’s especially important to do so here in the U.S., where an illegitimate president-elect is backed by Nazis. As an article a month ago in the Guardian by Matt Lees explains, what happened in Gamergate absolutely predicted what has happened in the past year, and is happening now, with Donald Trump:

The similarities between Gamergate and the far-right online movement, the “alt-right”, are huge, startling and in no way a coincidence. After all, the culture war that began in games now has a senior representative in The White House. As a founder member and former executive chair of Brietbart News, Steve Bannon had a hand in creating media monster Milo Yiannopoulos, who built his fame and Twitter following by supporting and cheerleading Gamergate. This hashtag was the canary in the coalmine, and we ignored it. …

n 2014, the media’s reaction was often weak or overtly conciliatory – some sites went out of their way to “see both sides”, to reassure people that openly choosing to be affiliated with a hate group did not make them in any way responsible for that hate. Olive branches were extended, but professional lives continued to be ruined while lukewarm op-eds asked for us to come together so we could start “healing”. The motivations may have been sound, but it’s the language Trump and his supporters have used post-election to obliterate dissenting voices.

In 2016, new wave conservative media outlets like Breitbart have gained trust with their audience by painting traditional news sources as snooty and aloof. In 2014, video game YouTube stars, seeking to appear in touch with online gaming communities, unscrupulously proclaimed that traditional old-media sources were corrupt.

Everything we’re seeing now, had its precedent two years ago. …

Looking back, Gamergate really only made sense in one way: as an exemplar of what Umberto Eco called “eternal fascism”, a form of extremism he believed could flourish at any point in, in any place – a fascism that would extol traditional values, rally against diversity and cultural critics, believe in the value of action above thought and encourage a distrust of intellectuals or experts – a fascism built on frustration and machismo. The requirement of this formless fascism would – above all else – be to remain in an endless state of conflict, a fight against a foe who must always be portrayed as impossibly strong and laughably weak. This was the methodology of Gamergate, and it now forms the basis of the contemporary far-right movement.

We have no idea where this will lead, but our continued insistence on shrugging off the problems of the internet as “not real” – as something we can just log out of – is increasingly misled. 2016 has presented us with a world in which our reality is being wilfully manipulated. Fake news, divisive algorithms, misleading social media campaigns. The majority of people who voted for Trump will never take responsibility for his racist, totalitarian policies, but they’ll provide useful cover and legitimacy for those who demand the very worst from the President Elect. Trump himself may have disavowed the “alt-right”, but his rhetoric has led to them feeling legitimised. As with Gamergate, the press risks being manipulated into a position where it has to tread a respectful middle ground that doesn’t really exist.

Prominent critics of the Trump administration need to learn from Gamergate. They need to be preparedforabuse, for falsified concerns, invented grassroots campaigns designed specifically to break, belittle, or disgrace. Words and concepts will be twisted, repackaged and shared across forums, stripping them of meaning. Gamergate painted critics as censors, the far-right movement claims critics are the real racists.

Perhaps the true lesson of Gamergate was that the media is culturally unequipped to deal with the forces actively driving these online movements. The situation was horrifying enough two years ago, it is many times more dangerous now.

Obviously, Jack Dorsey and Twitter aren’t responsible for all of this. But within his own lane, Dorsey and the organization he leads have an obligation to the service’s users and their fellow Americans to run a service that, if it doesn’t facilitate the best that America on the Internet can be, at least doesn’t allow the worst to prey on everyone else.

 

*In this post, and on this blog generally, I do not use the term “alt-right.” That’s Orwellian nonsense. These people are Nazis, just as their dads were when I was covering the Klan and other right-wing white-nationalist groups back in the ’80s. They’re not even “neo-Nazis”; there’s nothing neo- about them.

Monday, November 2, 2015 7:51 pm

#GamerGate, persecution and privilege

Not long ago I had my first run-in with Gamergate. It started, innocuously enough for me, with the news that the March 2016 South by Southwest music/film/interactivity festival (SXSW) had scheduled a session on online harassment and one on video gaming. Then the festival organizers announced that both panels had been canceled because of what they deemed credible threats of on-site violence. Then sponsors got involved. At this writing, I’m not sure how that will shake out, but how it does is irrelevant to the point I’m going to try to make.

I suppose I should stop here and explain what Gamergate is, but I warn you that if you ask six different people what Gamergate is (or “is about”), you’re likely to get six or seven different answers. In general, the answers break down into two camps: People who say they are concerned about the harassment of women in video game design specifically (and women online and in tech work generally), and  people who say they are concerned about integrity in video-game journalism. As I write this, the Wikipedia entry on the subject is a reasonably good summary, although more heavily tilted toward the harassment angle than the people who say they are concerned about integrity in video-game journalism probably care for. I’ll let you take a minute to go read that entry rather than rehashing it here.

You done? Good. Moving on.

SXSW’s planned session on online harassment was to have featured panelists who had previously been targets of online harassment, including Randi Lee Harper, Caroline Sinders and Katherine Cross. The separate video gaming panel was to have featured people who have been associated with the Gamergate movement,  including Perry Jones, Mercedes Carrera, Nick Robalik, and Lynn Walsh.

I know none of these people. More broadly, the last time I cared much about a video game probably was Missile Command in the early ’80s. Maybe I should care; gaming is a bigger financial deal than the movies or the music bidness now. But, then, I don’t see many movies or buy many CDs these days, either.

And as far as ethics in video-game journalism goes …. Well, I am a huge fan of ethical journalism, full stop. But I was a music journalist from my late teens until my mid-20s, when I just stopped. And the reason I stopped was that I had concluded that it was silly to apply the rubric of journalism to something that was, at bottom, a matter of taste. Sure, there’s hard news to be had in the music business, as there is in any other activity in which money changes hands, and that’s true of gaming as well. But the ethos of the time was to treat criticism as journalism, and I basically decided that that was intellectual wankery and I wasn’t going to do it anymore. For good or ill (and disagree if you like, but we’re not having that particular argument here), I take the same view of video-game criticism and much of the other writing around video games.

So, given that background, I didn’t really care about Gamergate, in and of itself. Not my circus, not my monkeys. But, being a son, husband, brother, father, uncle, cousin, friend, and co-worker to a whole passel of really bright, opinionated women, most of whom eat more shit in a week than I have had to eat my entire career, I care about harassment of women a lot, and I don’t have a lot of patience for people who engage in it or defend it. And having been a writer for a living for, oh, four decades give or take, and having had my own life threatened a time or two, I care a lot about the use of violence, or the threat of it, to shut down discourse.

And so I retweeted someone else’s opinion that canceling the sessions had been a mistake. I did that because I thought SXSW was wrong to give in to threats. And I added an opinion of my own: that maybe SXSW, an organization devoted to discourse, wasn’t exactly thinking clearly when it invited people from a movement with a history of harassment to have a panel.

That brought a response from one Gamergater. I don’t recall exactly what she said, and I can’t go back and look it up because I blocked her and have forgotten her handle, but it annoyed me enough to respond fairly harshly before blocking her.

And I did make one simple but consequential mistake. Because I didn’t care enough about the individual to look up the profile of that person for gender clues before responding, or responding to a third party about her, I referred to her in at least one tweet as having been male.

Wellnow. That brought the Gamergaters, or people whose Twitter profiles suggested that they were Gamergaters, out of the woodwork, and never was the phrase “flying monkeys” more apt, right down to the feces flinging. A lot of the respondents disagreed with my original point, which, well, it’s a free country. But a lot more were outraged that I had referred to a female respondent as male, and you’d have sworn from the substance of their remarks that they actually gave a damn about online harassment of women, intentional misgendering and other elevated subjects. Their tone, however, was a little more revealing: Collectively, they seemed to imply that the crime I had committed had been far worse than, oh, say, willfully and intentionally harassing a woman online, complete with threats of rape and other vileness. In other words, they were using the language of online equality to communicate a message utterly at odds with that equality. Their response to being accused of threatening and harassing was to harass. Either the irony of their behavior was lost on them or, more likely, they were being disingenuous assholes.

I have no patience for disingenuous assholes, particularly pseudonymous online ones. So I blocked them. And kept blocking. And kept blocking. I’m not sure how many there were or how long it took — several dozen and a couple of days, I’m guessing — but it finally died down.

And I was gonna leave it at that. But here’s the thing.

They might not be my monkeys, but online harassment of women simply for being women with opinions that other people don’t like is at least partially my circus, just as it is partially the circus of everyone who values online communication. Moreover, I won the cosmic lottery of having been born white, male, middle-class, American, and privileged, which gives me a free pass on a lot of the stuff that people who look different from me have to put up with from people who look like me. It’s a useless superpower in a lot of ways, and yet I feel obliged to use it for good.

Perhaps that’s why several of them referred to me disparagingly as a “social justice warrior” or “socjus.” Hey, better to be a warrior for social justice than for being a harassing dick.

Your mileage on Gamergaters may vary. But here’s mine, and I’m driving it hard: While there are, I’m sure, individual exceptions, the ones I’ve dealt with tend to equate losing their privilege, or even having the subject raised, with being persecuted. There’s a lot of that going around these days. I understand why you, if you’re a Gamergater, might feel that way. But the fact that you feel that way doesn’t make it true. It doesn’t justify harassing other people who disagree. It doesn’t mean SXSW owes you a forum. And it sure as hell doesn’t mean you’re entitled to be taken seriously.

Yes, I realize that some of the GGers who flocked around me were women with their own stories. Some of them have claimed to have been harassed themselves, and I have no doubt that that’s true in some cases. But the way to fight online dickery is not by being a dick to people who have nothing to deserve dickery. And while no dickery is justifiable, some is more understandable: Lashing out against people who either have engaged directly in unprovoked harassment or have defended it and cheered it on? I won’t defend that, but, lord, I understand it.

So if you’re serious about ethics in gaming journalism, then, go with God and be serious about ethics in gaming journalism. Feel free to point out conflicts of interests or other ethical lapses where you can document them, and share that information with every audience you can find that cares. But let that documentation speak for itself — which, if it’s any good, it will. And if you want to disagree with women about their opinions, knock yourself out. Prove why they’re wrong, if you can.

And where you can’t, see if you can at least not throw rape threats around every third tweet. If that’s too much for you to manage, don’t be surprised at the response you get.

Sunday, April 5, 2015 8:10 pm

Odds and ends for April 5

He is risen. He is risen indeed.

Cops in California are using a 1930s-era anti-lynching statute to intimidate protesters. Prosecutors so far have declined to press those charges, but it’s only a matter of time until a right-wing nutjob decides to try to make an example of someone.

Speaking of California, its people are in serious denial about its extreme drought, now in its fourth year. About 94% of the state considers the drought serious, but 61% still favor voluntary measures to deal with it. Y’all need to wake up.

Likely presidential contender and perennial horse’s ass Mike Huckabee thinks I’m a member of the “militant gay community,” inasmuch as that’s whom he’s blaming for the backlash against Indiana’s bigoted “religious freedom” statute. Who knew that Christians who take the Second Great Commandment seriously were militant gays? My wife certainly had no idea.

We have a system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent and this case proves it.” (Previously.)

In Florida, relatives of officers of for-profit charter-school companies are enacting legislation to divert money from public schools to charter schools. But none dare call it a conflict of interest, let alone a crime.

Randi Harper, somewhat unwillingly turned into an activist by GamerGaters and perpetrators of online violent and/or sexual threats, got SWATed — someone called in a false tip to police that led a SWAT team to raid her apartment. Her experience could have ended with her dead, or at least her dog. Fortunately, both are alive and well. She talks about what you need to do to protect yourself from such potentially deadly “pranks.” For the record, given the risk of gunplay anytime heavily armed cops storm a home, I think this “prank” should be treated as attempted manslaughter, at least. (h/t: Chip)

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh draws a useful distinction between what he does and much of the “news” you see in print and online today: Instead of taking a tip and building it into a story, too many reporters just run the tip.

 

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