The Price We Pay for Anonymous Mass Media: Abuse, Harassment, Misogyny

In the past weeks, the video games world has been shocked by the hatred, threats and misogynist harassment associated with the so-called Gamergate-scandal, where trolls hiding behind aliases have attacked female journalists and scholars who publicly criticise stereotypical depictions of women in video games. The assaults go beyond online practices of tweeted rape and murder threats, to the point where one had to cancel a public appearance and more than one cannot safely stay in their homes. Some will say “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” and while few people on the receiving end of online abuse will agree, the Gamergate-scandal has reached the point where the physical safety of certain women cannot be guaranteed. Their crime? Speaking their mind on sexism in games. Yes, the irony is clear, the rape threats and the fact that the targets are women confirm the sexism. The activities are orchestrated in online forums such as 8chan, Reddit-threads and Twitter-hashtags.

Gamergate-supporters claim that the real message is about press ethics and anti-corruption, but to the neutral observer it is clear that this has become an excuse for harassment. (What the #GG-campaign was meant to be, what it could have been and what it should be about are all pointless questions at this juncture.) The Week says Gamergate has backfired on its “nincompoop perpetrators”. Newsweek analyses tweets and concludes there is little to support the claim that the Gamergate-campaign is about ethics rather than harassment. Numerous media run stories about the victims of online misogynist hate. Wired Magazine says the old-school nerd gamer is going out of style fast, as games become mainstream entertainment.

This is by no means the first and surely not the last time online anonymity is abused for various reasons with disastrous results for particular individuals. Is that the price we have to pay for anonymity? That would then beg the questions: what is anonymity good for? It is often held up as the answer to privacy online, but as such it leaves a lot to want for. First, there is rarely any real anonymity, the companies running the services know who you are and some of them know much more than you’d like to think. Anonymity may exist toward other users, but hardly to the cloud service (who will share your data with both advertisers and government agencies, as has been made very clear). Second, the purpose of anonymity is often said to be such things as whistle-blowing, filing police reports, giving sensitive information to members of the press corps, and other similar, let’s say, civil duties. But those are not really dependent on anonymity, but rather trust and the legal protection of sources. The reporter knows who the source is in most cases, in fact that can be key to evaluating the quality of the information and make decisions about making it public. You can write a letter to the editor and have it published under pseudonym, but the editor knows your identity. Online anonymity does not help to this end, protecting sources does.

Another aspect of this phenomenon is anonymous mass broadcasts, such as tweets – which can potentially reach thousands or millions of readers, making it a de facto mass medium. But other mass media have editors fronting the publications, editorial policies, press ethics regulation and many other checks and balances, because reaching a mass audience is a great power and with great power comes great responsibility (as Spider-Man’s uncle wisely put it). This is a fact that is recognised in various ways in all democracies, but for some reason it is thought not to apply online.

A third take-away is a variation on the filter bubble-theory, the idea that personalisation of digital services provide us with information confirming what we already know, reinforcing our beliefs rather than putting them to the test with new information. In the case of Gamergate and other similar online harassment patterns, perhaps we can talk about “pressure cookers”, where like-minded people confirm each other’s beliefs, inspire or challenge taking action and then bragging about it to the group. One of the victims of Gamergate, Anita Sarkeesian, has spoken about this in conferences, how for example trolls would hack her Wikipedia-page, putting up nude pictures with Sarkeesian’s head on them, then posting the screen grabs on forums (or even their Facebook-pages), to get the credit from their peers. As Sarkeesian has pointed out, this pattern is not so much about anonymity but rather a lack of consequence for those wrongdoers. Also, any journalist or politician can testify that trolls like these have always been around, sending letters with death threats (or, you know, faeces) but these days they are not isolated, but congregate online, pushing one another to action.

Now, the cool, techno-optimistic point to make would be that exactly the democratisation that makes trolls possible can also be the anti-dote. For example there are a number of online petitions against abuse and harassment. But they are a response to the trolls and would not be necessary if freedom of speech online would also contain the element of responsibility that it is always associated with offline.

The Gamergate-scandal demonstrates that the combination of anonymity and irresponsible mass media is a dead end. Question is: how do we get democratised access to a global audience without the harassment?

UPDATE: It is also fair to say that the games industry has some clues for solutions, for example how it moderates its player forums. Here is one example:

Full disclosure: This writer’s background is in video games and he continues to work part time in that industry