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How Gamergate Became A Template For Malicious Action Online


Today, in 2019, the average person knows a lot about what's wrong with social media. There are headlines about Russian Twitter bots, mass shootings announced in advance on message boards, YouTube video wormholes that inspire white supremacists. Now, before all that, there was Gamergate. And this month marks five years since the beginning of a leaderless, mostly anonymous harassment campaign - a campaign targeting women in the industry, developers and journalists; anyone who called for change in the way women and people of color were represented in leadership or in games themselves. It was a warning and a demonstration of how bad actors could abuse the power of social networks to achieve malicious ends.

Brianna Wu is one of the women targeted by the movement. In 2014, she was co-founder of the independent game studio called Giant Spacekat. And today she is a Democratic candidate for Congress in Massachusetts.

Welcome to the program.

BRIANNA WU: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So to begin, how do you describe Gamergate in a nutshell?

WU: Well, I think you nailed it. It was an organized harassment campaign against women in the video game industry. And what they found out was, when they made the cost of speaking out high enough, many women in games would quit rather than continue speaking up. So what they did is they sent us rape threats. They sent us death threats, and they harassed us until many women simply left the game industry.

CORNISH: Now, you spoke out about some of the issues that Gamergate at least started to be about on your podcast. And after that, you became targeted. When you say death threats and rape threats, I mean, what form is this coming in? - how frequently?

WU: So it's - it was all the time. It was constant. You know, one of the weird things about being a woman in the tech industry is you gain a kind of dark ability to judge the seriousness of a death threat. So I got one yesterday of a man telling me he was going to stab me to death. That just - you don't take that seriously. The ones I got were very credible. They had my address. They had information about my family. They were very specific about the violence they were going to do to me. It was so serious that, actually, the FBI got involved. Even local Congresswoman Katherine Clark got involved.

CORNISH: At a certain point, there were women who - it seems like they kind of created a witness protection-style life for themselves, right? I mean, they had to move from their homes or stay with friends, be totally off the radar. Is that something you tried? And is it even possible in this day and age?

WU: Well, I tried as best as I could. You know, we removed our name from every single database we could. And I went so far as to moving to a new house and having a system set up to, like, re-mail me packages and letters. And, you know, I would even use an anonymous name when ordering things from Amazon. So it was very convoluted. And the thing that made my heart break one day is - I got home from a movie with my husband, and someone had sent me pictures of standing right behind me in the movie theater, just to say, hey, I know where you live.

CORNISH: That's how Gamergate felt to Brianna Wu from the inside. What happened to her has become a model for Internet harassment campaigns to this day.

WHITNEY PHILLIPS: Gamergate was really a touchstone moment for people studying disinformation and trying to make sense of our present hellscape (ph).

CORNISH: That's Whitney Phillips at Syracuse University, one of the people trying to make sense of that so-called hellscape. She says online harassment didn't start with Gamergate, but it brought the issue into the national spotlight. And the tactics used in Gamergate are all still around.

PHILLIPS: The first is what's known as brigading. That's coordinated harassment against an individual. So a bunch of people kind of get together, decide who to target, and then they go after that particular person. So that was something that you saw very frequently in Gamergate. Another tactic that was used throughout Gamergate is doxing - so releasing personal identifying information, like home addresses...

CORNISH: That are mostly public documents, right? So it's a matter of finding them and distributing it more widely.

PHILLIPS: Some of the information is public. But in other cases, the information, like someone's Social Security number, is not publicly available and is accessed through a variety of hacking methods. And so it is absolutely devastating and terrifying for the people on the receiving end of that attention.

CORNISH: You said that some of these techniques clearly existed before Gamergate. How did that situation make it worse? And where are the places we've seen it since?

PHILLIPS: So one of the main differences between pre-Gamergate and post-Gamergate behavior is that before Gamergate, these behaviors tended to be anonymous. After Gamergate, it was clear for chaos entrepreneurs and other folks who realized that there was - there could be big business around...

CORNISH: I got to stop you there. Did you say chaos entrepreneur?

PHILLIPS: Chaos entrepreneur, yes - people who are stirring the pot, maybe because they are themselves reactionaries, maybe because they adhere to white supremacist ideology and maybe because they're trying to make money or some combination of both. And Gamergate was when that life choice, business strategy, became an active road that someone could travel.

CORNISH: Is anonymous harassment a consequence of living in a society with open access to a lot of information? Or do you think there are safeguards that we could be using?

PHILLIPS: One of the things about Gamergate that is so distressing is that it showed us the dangers of lack of moderation on social media platforms. And in response to Gamergate, social platforms did nothing. And the fact that they were rewarded - journalists wrote about them, social media participants talked about them - there was every reason for these individuals to continue doing what they were doing and, in fact, to do it worse.

CORNISH: That was Syracuse University communications professor Whitney Phillips. Brianna Wu, the game developer targeted by Gamergate - well, she agrees with Phillips' assessment of what's wrong.

WU: If you're going to have a community of people, I think you have a responsibility to moderate that, to take out this kind of, you know, frankly, illegal threats on people. So the problem is the law isn't quite there right now. And I agree with other people that we need to examine this, and I think we need to open up certain situations to civil liability.

CORNISH: You're trying to straddle both worlds, right? You're running for Congress; you want a legislative fix. But you're also of the community, you know? You are someone who does this work and works in the industry. Is the industry ready to regulate?

WU: No, not self-regulate. It's never going to do that. It will say what it has to say, and it will keep doing the status quo. To me, the most lasting legacy of action from the game industry - it's not any kind of action standing up for women employees. They've just simply funded a lot of catered Women in Tech luncheons. That's not what we need. My big lesson from Gamergate is asking the men in charge to do the right thing does not work. So we need women, we need people of color in positions of power not just in the game industry but at social media and tech companies and in Congress.

CORNISH: Finally, an interview like this one - is that going to reignite harassment for you?

WU: It does every single time. I believe I got four death threats yesterday. I had a piece in The New York Times a week ago. I've had to have very difficult conversations with my husband, like are we prepared to put our lives on the line to speak out about this? And we are. It certainly takes a toll.

CORNISH: Brianna Wu, co-founder of the game studio Giant Spacekat, also Democratic candidate for Congress in Massachusetts, thank you for speaking with us.

WU: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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