Our Flag Was Still There: A Response to the Ethics Argument
Last Friday, Alex Layne explored legal definitions of terrorism, stalking, and cyberbullying to draw some conclusions about cyberterrorist acts, specifically in terms of online harassment against women tagged as “social justice warriors” by the GamerGate movement. Alex’s piece ignited a firestorm on Twitter, with responses ranging from mockery and downplay to other, potentially more serious responses inviting further discussion, but while Twitter has many features to recommend it as a platform, it is not the ideal place for extended discussion — hence today’s follow-up.
Alex breaks down the FBI’s definition of terrorism into three points. That it: involves “acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law”; appears to be intended to intimidate/coerce a civilian, influence government policy by intimidation/coercion, or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and occurs primarily within the jurisdiction of the US. She then goes on to explain that cyberterrorism is terrorism that seeks to exploit electronic information systems.
In the text that follows her definitions she goes on to list the ways that she has seen campaigns that fit these definitions transpire online in the attempt to destroy the lives and careers of women in and around the games industry. She lists many of the activities generically (perhaps because they are so familiar and many of the actual cases have been written and talked about previously at NYMG), but she does ultimately name drop Samantha Allen and Anita Sarkeesian.
Alex isn’t the first person to make these connections between coordinated campaigns against women online and terrorism as it has been defined by the FBI. Spitzberg and Hoobler gestured toward this connection with online stalking and harassment in New Media & Society back in 2002, and were cited by many afterward; DK Citron cited others who made terrorism connections back in 2009; Branko Marcetic made the connection with GamerGate specifically in 2014, and Anne Thériault spoke of online harassment in general, and GamerGate specifically, in 2015. And it isn’t as though anyone is saying this is unique to GamerGate — or, as we’ll get into in a moment, it’s everyone who claims the label GamerGate. Obviously internet harassment existed long before the hashtag was coined in August 2014, hence the history of some of the above-referenced material. What Alex is saying, as with others, is that there is a connection between the legalities of the terms she was examining and behavior associated with GamerGate.
Therein lies a problem, however — when these connections are made, invariably we see the following types of responses:
- When someone suggests that women (or other marginalized groups) are being targeted by GamerGate, someone from said group who identifies with GamerGate pops up and says, “I am a woman/Black man/gay man/etc., and I support GamerGate, therefore we are not harassing this group.” This is fallacious, of course, and while it’s certainly true that all sorts of people ascribe to the GamerGate movement, it doesn’t alter what happens under the GamerGate flag and it doesn’t mean that all people of that ilk feel the same way (again, we’ll get to that in a bit).
- “You didn’t offer any proof of specific harassment, therefore there is no harassment” or “You can’t just take her/his/their word for it” (or, related: you didn’t offer enough proof/proof that I approve of/let’s shift the goalpost again, etc). There have been well over a million tweets tagged GamerGate since August 2014, and a cursory search of the tweets that still exist (meaning, those that haven’t been deleted or otherwise removed) are enough to start discussing what happens under the tag… without even getting into the other digital hubs for GamerGate discussion.
- “GamerGate hasn’t killed anyone!” Legal definitions of terrorism, as above, do not require murder; the baseline is the intention to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population.”
- “Anyone who says GamerGate is about terrorism/harassment is just playing the victim.”
- “We don’t hate [insert group here], we just hate corruption and censorship.” Hatred isn’t a necessary requirement for terrorism or harassment; if your tactics to combat what you may see as “corruption” or “censorship” is terroristic or harassing in nature, then feelings don’t particularly matter.
- “You should have spoken to us before you said this stuff.” There are a number of ways to consider this kind of response. When we are conducting interviews or performing an ethnographic analysis, certainly, we do. In analyzing moves on social media, however, we analyze what we see. But the other part of this is that we do talk to people. We often have; we will again. None of that changes what we observe.
- “It’s just third-party trolls!”
But that last point raises the interesting question, referenced a few times above, of just who and what GamerGate is and ever was. Even at the movement’s genesis there seemed to be a split between those who were interested in talking about websites and the gaming press and those who were more interested in slut-shaming, or, in the Burgers and Fries chats, searching for doxx on Zoe Quinn and anyone related to her. That’s the thing about a leaderless “movement” organized on reddit, in IRC, and on Twitter: anyone can use your tag. And they can mean it just as much as you do, though for different reasons. If that “third party troll” (who may not be third party at all, or a troll; or could be all of those things) is the loudest voice in the room, what impression does that make? Maybe 8chan’s GGRevolt is doxxing people; maybe another group is. But once it happens, no matter who is responsible, the information is spread under the hashtag on Twitter; it extends to KiA, the “official” GamerGate hub, where it is discussed, where documents are passed through PMs to slip by rules, where saying “but it’s not us!” is presented as a defense. It’s simply not enough to say “it’s not us!” when the same discussions are happening within your own spaces. Not posting controversial content directly to the KiA subreddit isn’t a rejection of the tactics, but simply a move to keep KiA alive.
Let’s put it this way: two people wear a Confederate flag hat. Person 1 may honestly just feel that it’s the best way to communicate Southern pride; Person 1 is from Alabama and loves the hell out of it and can’t see past the flag as a simple icon reflecting that pride. Person 2, however, wears the Confederate flag hat because “Southern pride” is code, to them, that the good ol’ days of slavery or at least Jim Crow are where it’s at and that there is a strong desire to return to those days. (But ultimately we might question whether or not either recognizes that their “pride” does not exist in a vacuum. There is a lack of consideration of the people around them whose history of that flag has nothing to do with pride and everything to do with oppression and chattel slavery.)
Same symbol. Same label. Two very different reasons. And one reason is a lot louder than the other. Add in the fact that regardless of its use as a variable symbol, to many, the Confederate flag irreparably signifies pro-separatist, racist culture. All the “Southern pride” in the world doesn’t change that. It never will, either; there are moments when intent simply doesn’t have any impact whatsoever. Waving a Confederate flag is one such instance. Standing under the GamerGate banner may well be another.
Not long ago — right around the Overwatch/Tracer controversy — there was a thread on Kotaku in Action that no longer seems to be there, for whatever reason (maybe the original poster deleted it), that asked: should we be distancing ourselves from third-party trolls? The top-voted response at the time we read it was something along the lines of “what the hell do you think we’re doing?” That thread may be gone, but there are other, older versions of this discussion still there, and elsewhere, and they often go the same way: that’s not us, it’s never us, it’s splinter groups, other people, someone else. We’re just here for the ethics.
And as we’ve been writing, another version of this discussion appeared.
Here it is, from KiA – the third-party trolls argument. It’s someone out there, but it’s not us. It’s never us. Never mind that there’s a thread on KiA lambasting a woman who beefed with GamerGate some time ago, just because someone felt like posting her Twitter account again; now she’s being raked over the coals for fun. In another thread, someone’s father is not exactly being called a child molester, but discussions of his criminal record are happening, and of course, that could mean he molested her, sure. A poster snorts that a writer was “triggered” by dresses! Gasp! Actually, the original comment and the other commentary (on a Wargaming event) was pretty interesting, with nary a trigger to be seen, but that’s funny, right? Triggers, haha, so good.
It’s about ethics, though. So let’s see what ethics looks like:
So, according to this, GamerGate is about:
- Working overtime to attack a female writer and celebrating when she leaves (again and again and again)?
- Working to shut down a website they didn’t like (actively, instead of just not reading it)
- Yelling at and about “social justice warriors?”
- Calling people “retards?”
- The creation of a database — is this DeepFreeze? — that compiles “factual” (biased) reports on members of the gaming press that are disliked by GamerGate, while not calling out GamerGate-friendly outlets for behavior that fits the criteria set by DeepFreeze’s creators? (While DeepFreeze’s creators have taken some measures to improve, those improvements are mitigated by, among other things, the inclusion of non-gaming sites, which was one of the original arguments against including sites like The Ralph Retort)
- Attacking the unethical left while supporting Breitbart?
- Calling a longterm campaign of harassment against Anita Sarkeesian a win?
- Saying “social justice warriors” are not fans of games?
- …and, from the final paragraphs of this reply, one can only guess participating in KiA is about being a troll. After all, if you’re only doing something to make others mad, if you’re only there to create or comment on drama, what are you doing if not trolling?
Is it ethical to bring negative attention back to people who’ve left a field, left the conversation, and/or otherwise moved on? Is it a great ethical move to roll, en masse, into someone’s Twitter mentions (it isn’t particularly great when anyone does it; this is not limited to you)? Is it ethical to rail against “censorship” while also demanding games be designed as you want them? Is it ethical to make accusations under the guise of just “reporting facts?” Is it ethical to slap on a label of corruption because people who work in the same industry know each other? Is it ethical to yell sensationalism when someone has an opinion you don’t agree with? Or is it just another form of trolling?
“Trolling” has impacts. And this is why it seems so many have created links to legal definitions of cyberbullying, stalking, and yes, terrorism. These are concerted acts meant to influence or intimidate a civilian population. And if this is splinter groups and others just co-opting the GamerGate label, it may be time to consider actively separating from that.
Does the question of ethics not apply to people bearing the GamerGate flag, because it is a “consumer revolt,” because you are not journalists? We aren’t, either; we are games critics and scholars. And as such we hold ourselves to certain ethical and research standards. We don’t run ads or benefit from traffic to the site. We are here to have a civil conversation and to discuss our work and our research.
We have said it before and we will say it again (and again I’m sure), we are open to civil discussions about games and the games industry even when we find ourselves at philosophical odds with others involved in the conversation. But this conversation must be civil and provide us with more than 140 characters. Nuance demands it.
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again here: no reasonable person is in favor of media corruption, but people do have a lot of very different ideas about what corruption, sensationalism, objectivity, and agendas look like.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, just a couple of days ago, wrote about feminist critique of comic books in The Atlantic, and in doing so, said something worth repeating again and again: “This is why criticism is important. The job of criticism isn’t to interrupt or encourage commercial prospects. (‘Batman vs Superman smashes Box Office, despite critic complaints!’) Criticism should push our imagination and help us understand what is actually possible in art and, I’d argue, even what is moral.”
We aren’t here to say what should and should not be done. We are here to read and interpret, to critique, to make connections, to encourage thought. To help us all understand not just what is possible, in art, and in culture, but also to demonstrate how those possibilities are read from different angles.