GamerGate’s Next Target Is The Tech Industry: Are We Ready?

by MVC News Bot on March 31st, 2015

As news spread Friday that Ellen Pao lost her gender discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins, women in tech and their allies created #ThankYouEllenPao to express their gratitude and reflections on the verdict.

Within 12 hours, the hashtag was almost entirely filled with sexist slurs, harassing messages, slander, threats, and bizarre, often violent imagery posted by the anonymous accounts of internet hate groups.

Many of these tweets were tagged: #GamerGate.

GamerGate and affiliated groups from 4chan, 8chan and Reddit have been inflicting terrorism on the gaming community for more than eight months now, reflecting the latest — and perhaps most organized instance — in the evolution of online hate groups. While the group has purported to stand for “ethics in games journalism,” the campaign has transparently revolved around targeting and terrorizing women, particularly those who offer feminist critiques or alternatives to the dominant games discourses. But recently, GamerGate has been expanding to target women in the broader tech industry, sabotaging #ThankYouEllenPao and attacking several women in tech with no affiliation to gaming whatsoever.

GamerGate has a trademark brand of terrorism: doxxing and death threats are used to destabilize targets and isolate them from their communities; thousands of harassing and abusive messages are sent across multiple mediums; targets are slandered in an effort to secure community abandonment; private details such as an individual’s gender identity and sexuality are non-consensually outed; personal devices, accounts and websites are hacked or DDoSed; and family, supporters, employers and partners of targets are also targeted.

While gaming and the larger tech industry intersect and overlap in many ways, much of tech’s infrastructure, power and financial centers, and culture operate distinctly from the machinations of the gaming industry, and most of tech has been able to ignore the spread of GamerGate to date. Tech is an attractive target because of the cultural overlap that does exist, and because ongoing reform of the tech industry threatens GamerGate’s core “goals” of maintaining patriarchy and white supremacy, enforced via violent terrorism. Tech also has a groundswell of high-profile activists, journalists, critics, publishers, organizers and leaders who are women, as well as many with an increasing focus on social justice, providing a bountiful source of “targets” to online hate groups.

Though it is rapidly coming into the crosshairs, the tech community has been staunchly ignoring organized online hate for decades. The GamerGate campaigns we see today are part of a long lineage of attacks, many originally targeting Black feminists, that social platforms including Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr and Reddit have been ignoring for years even as they significantly degraded platform experience for some of the most active — and marginalized — demographics of internet users.

Consistently refusing to address online hate groups, the tech community is culturally and practically unprepared to address the shifting focus onto the tech community itself, which at the least would require:

Industry coalitions to address the cross-pollination of online harassment.

Harassment campaigns are often functionally organized on hate sites like 8chan, where they cross over onto Reddit, Twitter, Tumblr and other social sites where targets have established personal and professional communities. To effectively combat the migratory, multi-platform and furcated nature of online attacks, major social platforms are going to need to work together rather than operating in a silo to monitor evolving harassment tactics, identify abuse patterns and top abusers, and intervene more swiftly in organized attacks. Industry coalitions could also more effectively work with government, law enforcement, non-profits and grassroots organizations to establish precedent and policy in acting against online hate groups.

Raising awareness of online harassment techniques within tech companies.

A target’s place(s) of employment and sources of income quickly become a major attack vector in the midst of an online attack. As more and more marginalized people — particularly women — employed in technology become targets of organized hate groups, educated and compassionate leadership at tech companies would mean that victims wouldn’t have to fear firing, punishment or other sanction from employers. Unfortunately, victims of online attacks are frequently seen as “drawing unwanted attention” to the company, rather than as innocent victims of a well-documented hate group. As these hate campaigns spread, tech employers should choose to be allies to targeted employees, assisting them in securing safety, locking down points of cyber and physical vulnerability, and providing accommodations such as time off which is often sorely needed when recovering from the trauma of a large-scale attack. However, history suggests that tech companies and gaming companies alike cave quickly to the demands of online terrorist groups, making this seem unlikely without serious culture change.

Training of tech journalists on ethics for dealing with victims of online abuse.

A major factor in online harassment and how victims are treated in the midst and wake of an attack is media coverage. Journalists often play a big role, inadvertent or not, in jeopardizing or maligning victims of online harassment, including using stories without consent to garner pageviews, revealing personal details about victims without consent, amplifying messages of harassment and abuse, and engaging in victim-blaming logics. Tech journalists need to be prepared – and held accountable by the community – for reporting on online harassment in ways that are respectful to the consent and safety of victims.

Community assistance for hardening personal security.

With the threat of GamerGate growing on the horizon, marginalized people in tech who speak out about social justice issues and diversity need to take immediate steps to secure their physical and online security. Online guides such as this DIY guide to feminist cybersecurity are a fundamental step. Additionally, security firms and product companies could collaborate with online harassment activists to provide free workshops to the community, as well as better guidelines for securing physical and online attack vectors. Tech companies should also include personal cyber-security as a factor in the overall wellness and security of the organization, and provide resources and education to employees.

Collaboration with targets of previously affected groups.

The tech community is far from the first community to be targeted by organized online hate groups, and we could learn A LOT from collaborating, listening to, resourcing and, yes, hiring people from previously-targeted groups to help combat the threat. For example, several organizations have emerged from GamerGate’s attacks on the gaming industry, including the Crash Override Network and the Online Abuse Prevention InitiativeCiviliNation focuses on online hostility, character assassination and adult cyberbullying. These organizations should be able to gain resources and support from the tech community to further their missions and help our industry protect against attacks that have a clear precedence in an adjacent professional community. Additionally, Black feminists have been critiquing, documenting, and organizing against online harassment for years, yet they have too often been ignored by tech platforms when they should be centered in the conversation and provided with the resources and funding to bring their expertise to how tech platforms combat online harassment and build effective online communities.

While there are a number of steps the tech industry should be taking right now to guard its employees, activists and community members as the threat of organized terrorism targets our field more and more each day, it bears asking: will we be capable of addressing this, when we have ignored the way it has targeted our users for years and even decades?

Will an industry whose exterior disregard for the safety of users is mirrored in its internal culture and treatment of marginalized community members even *care*? Tech culture has clung to sexist and racist conceptualizations of online terrorism as something that happens to “undesirable” users, even as that terrorism has significantly damaged platform UX, reputation, quality and growth. Ultimately, steps to protect our own industry from these tactics must carry out into radical change in how we address online harassment against our users – after all, it is those patterns that we have left unchecked for years, now coming full circle back to us.