Flickering the Gaslight: Tactics of Organized Online Harassment

Faced with organized infiltration, appropriation and psychological abuse in our online communities, we have stopped believing in our own interpretations of what we experience.

by Gersande La Flèche on March 19th, 2015

There is a scene in the 1944 movie Gaslight that always creeps under my skin. Bella, portrayed by Ingrid Bergman, joins her husband in the dining room as he sorts through the mail brought in by the maid. Bella greets him with an anxiously saccharine-sweet “good morning”, clutching her small dog against her chest. Her husband, played by a stonily hot and cold Charles Boyer, barely acknowledges her. Instead, he cuts into an envelope with a knife as Bergman nervously asks: “Where is my letter?” To which Boyer answers: “What letter? Why should there be a letter for you?” Bella sputters in consternation – didn’t the maid just tell her that there was a letter from her cousin? She draws her small dog closer to her face, fear and disappointment written all over her face.

Moments after this exchange, the camera reveals that the letter from her cousin is in Boyer’s hands. He opens it in her presence, outwardly pretending it is not the letter she is looking for. The camera takes on the role of an objective witness, and the audience begins to understand what Boyer’s character has done as he hides the letter in his vest pocket and berates his wife for thinking that her cousin cares enough about her to send her a letter.

The abuse in Gaslight follows a pattern that is probably familiar to many a cinema-goer: a man with the authority and trust of his wife lies in order to convince her that he is the only one in the world who cares about her. He slowly chips away at her hopes and fears, until she is utterly unable to believe in her own perception of the world. Yet today, seventy-one years after Gaslight was released, psychological abuse of this nature is still a taboo and difficult subject to address on film, in public discourse, and in everyday conversation. We are conditioned to believe abuse is physically violent, uncommon or outside of the norm, and that larger societal forces are at a loss to stop it. Under this framework, grasping the depths of the gaslighting that occurs in our professional and social communities — both online and offline — becomes difficult, if not impossible.

A Deep, Obfuscating, Slow Kind of Violence

A lit gaslight.

Photo CC-BY Steve Snodgrass, filtered.

The Internet has been successful at highlighting the inequitable, paradoxical, confusing nature of human society. Some of the abuse perpetrated out there is, perhaps, “accidental”: collateral damage of the online and offline systems that control people. But most of this abuse originates somewhere – and a good deal of it is the result of the kind of social engineering that created #NotYourShield, as well as the racist and sexist campaigns that have targeted black feminists online for years.

In discussions over the human rights of LGBTQ and/or black folk in the US (and many other Western countries), the right-wing Christian groups that oppose them usually will not “condescend” to acknowledge the terminology used by LGBTQ or black folk and scholars to define themselves or their experiences. It is common for those who oppose social justice to do so by ignoring the changes in vocabulary and ideology that occur within and around these “othered” or “marginalised” spaces:

Tweet from user @ParisAkins which reads 'Students at Moody Bible don't believe white privilege or gay marriage exists.' It has an attached screenshot of a Facebook post reading: 'Keep in mind that we lose half the battle when we descend to the terms and vocabulary handed us by syllabus of this world. 'White privilege' does not exist in the same way that 'gay marriage' does not exist. While no one is saying there is not a real discussion to be had, we must undertake it theologically, sanctified in our minds and hearts. There is no such thing as white privilege, because we are one and equal in Christ. We ought to use vocabulary that bears witness to the truth we are trying to confess, not worldly, titillating vocabulary that is only good for edgy advertising. This would be a good place to start for charitable dialogue.'

In contrast, recent harassment campaigns on Twitter have been defined by the outright infiltration of communities and the appropriation of their terminology. To infiltrate Tumblr, #GamerGate created #OpFirefly, or Operation Firefly, in order to counter the negative perception of the hate campaign on those websites:

“The goal is to expand pro-GamerGate messages outside of Twitter, 8chan, and other established GamerGate hubs in order to reach people who otherwise would not hear our side.” (Source)

In this vein, the strategy of online hate groups creating sock puppet accounts or fake social media personalities has been extensively documented:

What we uncovered was an extended year-long plan, where 4chan users were to set up fake accounts where they would pretend to be Black women, women of color, trans women, and otherwise marginalized folks, infiltrate our spaces, study how we operate, then wage hashtag war. (Source)

In the two months that GamerGate has been roiling the internet, I’ve encountered lots of sock puppets. Or at least, I’ve encountered dozens of twitter accounts with few tweets, few followers, few verifiable personal details, few photos or videos, and a peculiar predominance of tweets about one subject, specifically GamerGate. (Source)

Such campaigns have been critically augmented by their infiltration of language. On Twitter, the #NotYourShield operation has been tweeting loud, constantly, and in force that the campaigns of #GamerGate are done with the best interest of minorities in mind. Advocates of #NotYourShield use terminology from feminist and black scholarship, terminology lifted directly from the blogs, tweets, and tumblrs of black activists, social workers, nurses, trans advocates, queer activists and survivors. #NotYourShield also began to use “trigger” terminology (originally a term used by Alcoholics Anonymous members to describe situations or events that might lead to self-destructive behaviours) to shut down criticisms of #GamerGate. Suddenly, words on Twitter or Tumblr such as “hegemony”, “white privilege”, and “transmisogyny” have to be analyzed carefully – because even if one tweet looks like it’s using the academic or social justice terms properly, the intention may be to dilute the discussion into arguments over bizarre interpretations of relatively recently established semantics.

Games scholar Carolyn Jong has documented the appropriative practice extensively as a technique descended directly from fascism:

Typically fascism is characterized by the scapegoating of minority groups, as well as male chauvinism and extreme nationalism. However the existence of NotYourShield may be a sign that, by rendering overtly racist, sexist, homophobic, and discriminatory statements and actions unacceptable in public arenas, progressive movements have forced reactionaries to adopt the front of an inclusive and minority-friendly movement as a means of diverting criticism and attracting the broad base of supporters necessary to maintain the campaign‘s power and momentum. At the same time, GamerGaters (as they are commonly called) are relying on the logic of racial segregation embedded in the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine of the United States, and effectively ghettoizing all those who are not straight, white, able-bodied, cis male supporters. Despite this, many people willingly participate in NotYourShield, in return for the support of other GamerGaters, who may provide them with a sense of belonging, community, and personal validation; provided, that is, that they continue to serve the ‘common cause’ by emphasizing their status as women and minorities.

When the words we use to verbalise our hurt, our pain, and our resistance are co-opted and twisted, it becomes harder to identify peers, allies, and kindred spirits. By overloading SEO crawlers with misleading terminology, #NotYourShield and #GamerGate make searching and defining problems with online search engines nearly impossible, and obfuscate the work of activists and scholars addressing systemic inequality. They fundamentally disrupt the trust in theory, vocabulary and scholars that “social justice warriors” may be relying on to verbalize their fears and pain. And it becomes near impossible to find the origins of tactics, conversations, hate campaigns, and hashtags without a high level of technical expertise or data-mining proficiency — giving their agents online the “benefit of doubt” to the average Internet “layperson”.

Screenshot from a Twitter user reading 'tfw we co-opt every single sjw term and initiative and get them buttflustered.' It is tagged with the hashtags weheart, OpLOVENET and GamerGate, and includes a picture of a sea lion.

The screenshot from Twitter above, where a “sea lion” is disrupting social justice terminology for the “lulz”, undercuts the seriousness of the act. It’s a deep, obfuscating, slow kind of violence — and it’s also gaslighting. By corrupting the reliability of these words to signal what kind of discourse is happening, the “sea lions” of #NotYourShield are able to perturb the social justice warrior’s, or “SJW’s”, sense of reality, convincing them that they are “crazy” or don’t understand what is happening online.

Hooked In

Series of hooks laid out on a table above a ruler.

Photo CC-BY Kirsten Skiles.

During the course of several conversations with organizers at the Centre for Gender Advocacy in Montréal, we discussed the importance of specific terminology to describe the experiences and pains of the trans community. There is a deep, historical preoccupation in these spaces with terminology, as words usually move from describing the lived experiences of community members into the medical, political and academic structures necessary to allow people to establish the validity of their identities with doctors, policy makers and scholars, among others. While nobody wants to be boxed into stereotypes, a reason these identities are still necessary is because we want to be able to name our existence, our problems, and our perspective. When the word “transgender” becomes a word with medical, cultural, or political significance, the people who identify with that label are validated in those spheres: these people now exist, are no longer invisible, and can have their needs acknowledged.

Recognition of terminology is foundational to the process of validation. When prominent GamerGaters and MRAs use words that have been developed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, or to describe the violent institutions of white supremacy in our countries, they are not “reappropriating” or changing the meaning of the word through the elasticity of language and culture: they are actually enacting violence on the people who need those words to validate their own experiences and existences.

When approaching the gaslighting that occurs on Twitter and other online spaces, we need to develop a vocabulary and a framework that allows us to describe, mitigate, and correct this abuse and its psychological effect on us. As the professional and social spheres increasingly blur together on platforms like Twitter, it becomes paramount that any gaslighting that occurs must stop; however, it’s almost impossible to diagnose or call out in the first place. For many of us, hooked into an abusive relationship with tech, with Twitter, with local and global communities, or even corporate entities, we are constantly walking on eggshells. The toxicity (or implicit threat) of sexism, racism, transphobia, ableism, and poverty leave us feeling utterly isolated and without recourse. Faced with organized infiltration, appropriation and psychological abuse in our online communities, we have stopped believing in our own interpretations of what we experience. We don’t believe our innate reactions are valid. If we are extremely lucky, and not utterly isolated, we rely on the trusted counsel of a few close friends, so that we can periodically reassure ourselves that what we are perceiving and experiencing is real.

This is gaslighting on the macro-level, and it permeates subtly through the internet and into professional spaces. The dismantling of trust in terminology, lived experiences, and scholarship are devastating blows to many who are trying to survive slow violence and build thriving, successful careers and existences.