I don’t deal in culture (I just put my affiliation up there out of a sense of disclosure. You can’t be neutral on a moving flamewar). I study technology and warfare, and have some ideas about the tactics that have come to the forefront of GameGate, and how they can be countered. In short, this is a counter-insurgency campaign, and we need a way for ordinary Twitter users to protect themselves from harassment.
GamerGate feels like the insurgencies we’ve gone through recently-Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iraq again-because it seems like it’ll go on forever. Maybe the trolls will get bored tomorrow, or maybe some particularly high profile idiot will get arrested and the rest will scatter (say, whoever got Anita Sarkeesian’s talk at Utah State University cancelled via threats of a massacre). But I’m not expecting any miracles. This has become part of the culture wars, and it’ll just keep popping up with a different set of victims year after year. Forget the bullshit arguments about “ethics in journalism”, discussions of gamer culture and it’s “overness”, or the dueling claims of moral righteousness and corruption. Whatever GamerGate is actually about, the movement’s tactics of harassment, doxxing, and death threats are clearly unacceptable. “My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins,” as the saying goes.
Metaphors, particularly about computers, are slippery things, and while this is not literally a war, a Counter-Insurgency lens draws our attention to three things: First, the terrain, the space in which action, movement, and conflict occurs, and how the terrain helps or hinders each side. In this case, the terrain is primarily Twitter and YouTube, and they by their nature (pseudonymous, personal contacts, weak privacy protections) favor offense over defense. Second, weapons: John Paul Vann, probably America’s most experience practitioner of asymmetric warfare famously said of the Vietnam War “This is a political war and it calls for discrimination in killing. The best weapon for killing would be a knife… The worst is an airplane.” Big shows of power are clumsy and counter-productive. I am strongly opposed to killing in this case, and even non-violently removing the so-called leaders of GamerGate wouldn’t do much in solving the problem. To modify his quote, I would say that “This is a technological war, and it calls for intelligence in algorithms… the worst tool is anything that has to be done by hand” And third, in COIN you have to protect the population to win. This isn’t over until the targets of GamerGate feel safe.
There is hope. Once before, the internet was overrun by offensive speech, and we beat it. Remember the grim days of email pre-2000, when inboxes overflowed with penis enlargement pills, dodgy Nigerian princes, and unsolicited commercial offerings? We beat spam, and it didn’t take a cultural revolution or massive government intervention. As revealed in Finn Brunton’s excellent book Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet, these unwanted emails had a distinct style, a machine-readable Bayesian fingerprint that couldn’t be removed from the message without removing the pitch. The same tools can work against the hate speech that is the bread and butter of GamerGate harassment.
The basic element of GamerGate is the harassing tweet or YouTube comment. You do it, you see it, you feel good about, and the target’s background radiation of online harassment gets pushed up a notch. Being security conscious and informing law enforcement can help victims survive major threats, but there’s not much you can do about the noise on Twitter. The noise matters—the noise makes the movement appear bigger and more powerful than it is. It provides an emotional boost for people who are on the fence about doxxing and death threats. And it is frankly terrifying in and of itself.
Jeff Kunzler in what has probably been my favorite article on this whole mess, The Gamification of Terror, describes the tactical overlaps between GamerGate and the EVE Online Goonswarm Corp. Goonswarm was better lead, but the basic methods of using propaganda to incite masses of people with too much time on their hand to conduct individually minor actions that collectively add up a knock-out punch, are pretty much the same. You make people feel like part of a movement, you ask them to do just one tiny thing, and you show them how what they did matters so they’ll do it again. To win, to steal momentum from the movement, we need to break this feedback loop.
Trisha Prabhu performed a fascinating and fairly data-filled experiment on cyber-bullying where she showed that even the slight delay of a second confirmation box on bullying messages could reduce the number of messages sent by over 90%. I’m not sure if the abstract environment of an experiment translates so strongly to the heated world of actual online debates, but the result shows promise.
I’d extend Prabhu’s method by having a Bayesian filter scan for abusive messages. If it detects potential abuse, it asks the sender to reconsider, and if the message is sent, allows the recipient to ignore the message or confirm that it is fact abusive. When the recipient and the filter agree on abuse, the sender gets sanctioned. Repeated sanctions lead to being banned from the service. The result is that people intent on abuse will remove themselves from the debate. This intervention is as mild as possible, requiring persistence in the face of a warning, and the agreement of an evenhanded algorithm and the human target.
Users can force their services to change. No self-respecting email service lacks a spam filter. I’m going to send a condensed version of this post to the powers that be at Facebook, Twitter, and Google, and ask them to seriously consider strong anti-harassment options with a software component in future releases. If Ello can launch itself on hipster authenticity (and deliberate anti-privacy design), why can’t some future social network base itself on not being full of asshole scum?
This is how GamerGate end: When the basic structure of the internet stops making it so very easy to conduct pseudonymous harassment and whips mobs into a frenzy. This ends when we empower targets to defend themselves, fairly, symmetrically, and in a way that reduces rather than amplifies the cyclone of hatred. I don’t want to silence anybody in this debate. If you honestly think gaming should look like it did in 1998, that’s your opinion and you’re welcome to it. And I’d love to hear more honest thoughts about really ethical game journalism and the future of video games. A future dominated by digitally empowered lynch mobs is one that’s bad for everyone-even weev deserves human rights. GamerGaters should welcome a chance to disarm, since historically violent movements tend to lose their struggles, while non-violent ones flourish.
For those of you who might argue “Well, the internet shouldn’t be censored”, that argument is not even wrong. Democracies protect the Right to Free Speech because the government already has so many powers that adding censorship to the list is overkill: traffic law, zoning codes, taxes, confiscation, imprisonment, execution, etc. etc. It is only fair to the people that they have this last bastion. Comparatively, pretty much all you can do with a computer is speech act, whether human or machine readable. To cry “censorship” is to deny the existence of power online. We’re already very comfortable with algorithms ruling our lives, and there are human mods out there, albeit desperately overworked. I can’t even begin to describe the unholy alliance of Big Tech and the NSA, but power and censorship are already entrenched, and authoritarian states can use the Internet to destroy anybody with less than perfect espionage tradecraft.
The fact is: Code is Law; Tech companies are legislative bodies. The question is: “Do we want to live in Sweden or Somalia?” GamerGate is welcome to 8chan, but they shouldn’t be able to take Twitter and YouTube without resistance.