Gelman: Gamergate could affect all online free speech


Max Gelman, Columnist

Last summer, the Gamergate controversy burst into the national spotlight. For those who are unfamiliar, the Gamergate movement boiled over after the ex-boyfriend of indie game developer Zoe Quinn accused her of sleeping with a reporter to garner better reviews for her game, “Depression Quest.” Quinn became the target of profuse online harassment, and, in an effort to impede her harassers, fled from her home.

Advocates of Gamergate — the generally “hardcore gamers” who committed this online harassment — justified their actions by claiming “ethics in gaming journalism” had deteriorated to such a point that flooding of Quinn’s and other developers’ emails and Twitter feeds arose as the best solution. Opponents criticized the movement for being inherently misogynistic, as the Gamergaters aimed most attacks at women. After Gamergate came to a head in October when feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a speech at Utah State University because of a mass shooting threat, the conflict largely disappeared from the news.

So the real question for me becomes, “If this harassment doesn’t affect me, or the way I play video games, why should I care?”

I consider myself a casual gamer, which in my mind is someone who, for the most part, plays video games with other people. If Gamergate is centered around the “stereotypical gamer” – sloppy white men living in their mothers’ basements – then is it really worth my time?

Gamergaters lashed out at critics by “doxxing” them — posting information online such as their addresses and phone numbers. Other users then used this information to antagonize Gamergate critics, sending pizza deliveries, empty UPS boxes and adult sex toys to their homes. As The Guardian reported on Jan. 13, the harshest exhibition of these “pranks,” as the Gamergaters like to put it, is called “SWATing,” and involves calling emergency services and falsely reporting hostage situations, resulting in the deployment of a SWAT team. SWATing has become much more prevalent recently, as different news agencies reported three SWATing attempts in the past two weeks.

These attacks are coordinated on the /baphomet/ thread of a website called 8chan (pronounced “infinite chan”), a very liberal offshoot of the 4chan website that gained infamy last summer when it leaked nude photos of celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton. Although the anonymous users of /baphomet/ assert they’re different from Gamergate, most of their harassment is directed at Gamergate critics. 

The first post on the /baphomet/ thread on 8chan, which was pinned to the top when I visited the site last week, is a list of thread rules and links (including an entire Wiki devoted to the subject) that users can click if they want to dox or SWAT anyone who has the audacity to disagree with them. Furthermore, a post farther down indicated /baphomet/ users intended to dox Washington Post reporter Caitlin Dewey after she wrote about 8chan for her blog.

As far as I’m concerned, Gamergaters are terrorists.

According to the FBI’s website, domestic terrorism is defined as activities with the three following characteristics: “involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law,” “appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population” and “occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.” The attempted SWATings of transgender game developer Grace Lynn and other Gamergate critics meet all of those criteria. Prank calling 911 isn’t legal anywhere, the attacks have all occurred in the U.S. and even though the SWATers may claim their intimidation tactics are only entertaining pranks, an armed SWAT team raiding a house unequivocally presents dangers to human life.

But again, how does Gamergate affect people who don’t play video games? Maybe these lunatics are simply using their right to freedom of speech, however twisted and demented their words. If we decide to allow Gamergate and /baphomet/ to continue using the Internet to carry out illicit activities while maintaining our silence, the consequences will result in freedom of speech restrictions for everybody who uses the Internet.

Remember the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)? Nearly three years ago, Internet juggernaut and homework helper extraordinaire Wikipedia protested a bill in Congress by shutting down its own website for 24 hours. That bill, SOPA, would have held users of social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, accountable for any copyrighted content they post. For example, if you upload a video to YouTube explaining how to tie a tie, and happen to have Lady Gaga playing in the background – under SOPA you would have been criminally liable and can be prosecuted.

The intimidation tactics used by /baphomet/ won’t scare only their intended victims. They’ll also scare our politicians, who, in an effort to win over whatever the median voter happens to be thinking, will try to introduce legislation similar to SOPA over and over again. It almost goes without saying that most politicians are clueless when technology and the Internet are involved. In the end, the actions of the attackers — an extremely vocal minority — may invoke legislation that could limit everyone’s freedom on the Internet.

For argument’s sake, let’s say Gamergaters really don’t want to intimidate their critics. Let’s say that all they really want is to have some fun. Well, if that doesn’t legally make them terrorists, then it makes them bullies. Every grade school bully says, “I was only joking. Lighten up.” So to Gamergate, I say this: When your advocates claim they had to take the bullying growing up but then sit idly by when they’re in the bully’s shoes, your entire movement looks hypocritical. When your members champion free speech but terrorize dissidents with police raids, your entire movement looks illogical. And when your followers harass women and the transgender community because they don’t conform to your ideal of “gamer identity,” you show your true colors. You are terrorists.

Max Gelman is a Medill freshman. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]