Opinion | How an Online Mob Created a Playbook for a Culture War - The New York Times
On August 15, 2014, an angry 20-something ex-boyfriend published a 9,425-word screed and set in motion a series of vile events that changed the way we fight online. The post, which exhaustively documented the last weeks of his breakup with the video game designer Zoë Quinn, was annotated and punctuated with screenshots of their private digital correspondence — emails, Facebook messages and texts detailing fights and rehashing sexual histories. It was a manic, all-caps rant made to go viral.
And it did. The ex-boyfriend’s claims were picked up by users on Reddit and 4chan and the abuse began. Ms. Quinn and her immediate family members were threatened. Her private information was exposed, including old nude photos from a past relationship. Chat rooms popped up to discuss the best ways to “ruin her life” and fantasize about elaborate ways of killing her.
Using fake Twitter accounts, 4chan users posed as “angry feminists” and got the hashtags #EndFathersDay and #WhitesCantBeRaped to trend globally. At a tech conference in 2013, in an incident called Donglegate, Adria Richards, a tech consultant and woman of color, tweeted about a sexist joke uttered during a keynote speech. Her tweet went viral, and Ms. Richards was fired, doxxed, received death threats and had “images of her beheaded, or her face photoshopped onto the body of porn stars.” Not all of the hoaxes succeeded: 4chan campaigns like “Operation Freebleeding” (where trolls pretended to be feminists rejecting tampons as patriarchal tools of oppression) failed to stoke culture war flames.
“The energy and ideology of this movement weren’t new but Gamergate was when the movement evolved and the monster grew a voice box,” Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse who studies online harassment and media manipulation, told me. “All the anger, all the toxicity and fear of being replaced by a culture more focused on social justice — it all came together in a spectacularly awful way.”
Unlike its predecessors, Gamergate jumped out of the obscure fever swamps of the internet and into mainstream consciousness, in part because its arrival coincided with a peculiar online moment in which social media platforms were becoming more mainstream. People who were unfamiliar with the chaotic underbelly of internet culture could be easily tricked or manipulated by its worst actors. “The clash of anonymous imageboard culture with the parts of social media where people live and work created the divide underlying Gamergate,” Jay Allen, a freelance writer, wrote of this dynamic in 2014.
Crucially, Gamergate emerged during the internet’s shift from a largely anonymous or pseudonymous culture to one centered around personality-driven influencers. And, unlike previous abuse campaigns led by armies of unknown internet users, Gamergate attracted the attention of then-men’s rights bloggers like Mike Cernovich and Roosh V, right-wing political correctness monitors like Christina Hoff Sommers and middling journalists like Milo Yiannopoulos, then a writer for Breitbart.
“Gamergate really prototyped the rise of harassment influencers,” Ms. Phillips told me, arguing that the size and intensity of the controversy quickly attracted opportunists who saw the conflict as a way to gain large followings stoking the culture war flames. In turn, these personalities extended the conflict, highlighting new controversies. The fact that these influencers were real, identifiable people only further legitimized the event for its followers.
Today, five years later, the elements of Gamergate are frighteningly familiar: hundreds of thousands of hashtag-swarming tweets; armies of fake Twitter accounts; hoaxes and disinformation percolating in murky chat rooms and message boards before spreading to a confused mainstream media; advertiser boycotts; crowdfunding campaigns; racist, sexist and misogynist memes; YouTube shock jocks; D-list celebrities hand-wringing about political correctness on Twitter; Milo Yiannopoulos, Steve Bannon and Breitbart; Candace Owens.
Gamergate’s DNA is everywhere on the internet, and the ubiquity of Gamergate’s influence has even spawned a winking trope: Everything Is Gamergate.
Gamergate wasn’t the birth of a brand-new culture war, it was a rallying cry. And its trollish successes in intimidating women, deceiving clueless brands and picking up mainstream coverage taught a once-dormant subculture powerful lessons about manipulating audiences and manufacturing outrage. Five years on, no lesson feels more prescient than the fact that its supposed central premise — a broad reckoning regarding journalistic ethics in video games — was based on an easily (and frequently) debunked lie.
Gamergate is occasionally framed as a battle for the soul of the internet between a diverse, progressive set and an angry collection of white males who feel displaced. And it is that, too. But its most powerful legacy is as proof of concept of how to wage a post-truth information war.
The lesson of Gamergate — the one we feel reverberating throughout our politics every day in 2019 — is that there’s a sinister power afforded to those brazen enough to construct their own false realities and foist them on others.