It started as an episode of revenge porn. An angry ex-boyfriend posts a blog flaming his former girlfriend, accusing her of infidelity and leveling charges that she exchanged sex for favorable reviews of her work (a video game called Depression Quest and a review that apparently was never written). When he followed up the blog post with naked pictures of her, the converging claims of sex and corruption set into motion a social response within the gamer community, among journalists and across the women's rights community. Known as #gamergate, this personal drama has seeped into the mainstream media with coverage in Time, CNN, The Daily Beast and Mother Jones, to name a few. And while others have delved into the blame game and socio-legal implications of the expansive scandal, it is the tactical use of social media to wage war on the girlfriend (Zoe Quinn) and other feminist analysts (and their defenders) that we explore here. It is the rise of social warfare within society, as opposed to social warfare in the military sphere that brings me to #gamergate.
Let's start with a non-illuminating rant. I HATE how people add "-gate" to the end of words to connote a scandal. Sure, Watergate was a big scandal and it took down a president. And, sure, the application of "-gate" to the end of scandals that might take down another president is somewhat relevant, even if overly wishful in its application. But when we start applying -gate to scandals that have nothing to do with the president, elections nor the government, it gets trite really fast. It is just plain lazy labeling. (Rant over)
What strikes me as interesting about #gamergate is the way a small number of people in the gamer community leverage social media channels to elevate their viewpoint and shift the balance of the national debate disproportionately to their side.
There is a reason why, in all the Gamergate rhetoric, you hear the echoes of every other social war staged in the last 30 years: overly politically correct, social-justice warriors, the media elite, gamers are not a monolith. There is also a reason why so much of the rhetoric amounts to a vigorous argument that Being a gamer doesn't mean you're sexist, racist, and stupid-a claim no one is making. Co-opting the language and posture of grievance is how members of a privileged class express their belief that the way they live shouldn't have to change, that their opponents are hypocrites and perhaps even the real oppressors. This is how you get St. Louisans sincerely explaining that Ferguson protestors are the real racists, and how you end up with an organized group of precisely the same video game enthusiasts to whom an entire industry is catering honestly believing that they're an oppressed minority. From this kind of ideological fortification, you can stage absolutely whatever campaigns you deem necessary. (Kyle Wagner, Deadspin.com)
Using a combination of sockpuppets (fake social media accounts) and doxing (collecting and posting documentation to "out" someone's "secret" background), a small band of people can create the illusion of masses and the sense that there is a vast conspiracy underneath the surface story. These tactics are used to bully opposing voices into silence, if not submission. In the case of #gamergate, we have seen death threats, threats of stalking and rape, and, in one instance, a university refusing to ban guns from being brought into an auditorium where threats of a mass shooting were issued (seems Utah's conceal carry laws were more sacrosanct than public safety in the face of credible threats).
We have seen these tactics before. They are common among the so-called Twitter Gulag Defense Network (a right-wing group of attack dogs on Twitter using the hashtag #TGDN, among others). We have seen similar tactics associated with the fringes of the Unite Blue progressive community, where another group of attack dogs go after anyone who criticizes UniteBlue.com, while some of those criticizing Unite Blue use similar tactics, as well.
The key point regarding #TGDN and the Unite Blue-related factions in relation to #gamergate is that they have remained on the fringes of the public discourse. They are not mainstream, while #gamergate has broken through.
Following up on last week's column on the possible future of political advertising, what #gamergate reveals is an emerging transformation in the methods of social dirty politics, or social warfare applied to cultural and political issues. And while it should be noted that many of us in the social advocacy business develop campaigns designed to elevate the voices of one side of an issue in order to influence policy outcomes, what we see in the examples discussed here is the use of deception and personal attacks.
The rise of "dirty tactics" is nothing new in politics. And oftentimes what is seen as dirty to one side is considered legitimate to the other (every terrorist is a freedom fighter to their own constituency). It was only a matter of time (if not a time already past) that social advocacy and politics incorporated less savory tactics. In #gamergate, we have a big window into how that looks.