The Harassment Game

The rules never really change, but the potential for harm keeps escalating.

by Mikki Kendall on February 23rd, 2015

This isn’t yet another article about Gamergate. It could be, but even as the anti-Gamergate conversations unfold on Twitter, and celebrities take sides (such as there are sides in a discussion over who has the right to exist and speak), the thing is that we’ve done this before, and we will do it again. Every few days another discussion of online harassment and stalking is unfolding in some circle, fandom or literature or tech or some other subculture. We’re in what seems like year twenty of discussing online harassment and cyber bullying as a problem that needs a solution.

What we’re not doing is talking about actual solutions.

Person in a jacket walking behind another person on the street in a threatening way.

Photo CC-BY Patrik Nygren, filtered.

After all, it’s easy to think of online harassment (whether Gamergate or some other cutesy nickname for organized stalking) as something that can’t possibly hurt anyone. It’s being done for the lulz, and sure the people participating are jerks, but they’re not dangerous right? Right. Wait, this is the internet where anyone can be participating, including people who won’t stop at a few tweets. People have lost jobs over tweets, committed suicide or been shot to death over Facebook fights. In a culture where David Kalac posts pictures of the woman he murdered to 4Chan and no one does anything to keep her son from finding her?

How much further can things go?

There Are No Rules

Chess pieces.

CC-BY Nestor Galina, cropped and filtered.

In 2011, I wrote about a medically necessary abortion. It went viral (as these things sometimes do) and sure, most of the threats that resulted weren’t credible. Thousands of people reading something you wrote slants the odds heavily in favor of at least a few people being outraged enough to send you an angry response. And most of those angry responses are one-shots never to be repeated. But one threatening response to my piece was a credible threat, and it wasn’t just directed at me. It was directed at my children. Because the people who hopped on the bandwagon of directed hate forgot that they were encouraging people who might go further than angry emails and Facebook messages.

I wrote some blog posts, some things got posted on pro-life websites, I was accused of writing about my abortion, the subsequent harassment, and my life in general to boost my fledgling writing career…this all sounds really familiar doesn’t it? Of course it does, because there’s a script to these things that never really changes. And neither do the responses to it.

Here’s the thing about being harassed online that no one tells you. Or at least no one you want to listen to tells you, because it’s hard to say and even harder to believe if it hasn’t happened to you. It’s not the first threat, or the first insult. It’s not even the fifteenth (and yes, there will be a fifteenth), it’s the realization that even with all the evidence in the world, people will still insist that A) You deserve it, B) That it is no big deal, or C) That you must be making it up.

And then there’s the pretense that this is a new problem, as though the same names aren’t showing up over and over again, whether as direct harassers, or as coy ringleaders of harassment pointing would-be minions to the next target. This week’s harasser is next week or next month’s well-known leader of harassers. There’s a certain reward system to being a harasser. It’s not necessarily monetary, but it exists nonetheless. There’s social capital in being the one to drive away that uppity loud mouthed person who had the temerity to get on the internet like they had a right to exist in the world.

And for the targets, it’s not something with a finite end date. I was going to write about being harassed anonymously. Because I didn’t want to revisit that feeling of being afraid to open my inbox. Then out of the blue, some random stranger got mad at me for something I said about soul food and started tweeting me links to articles written about me by the person whose posts kicked off my harassment in 2011. And it dawned on me, there is no life after being harassed if you’re a marginalized person speaking up on the internet. Whether my harassment comes from talking about race in 2009, abortion in 2011, feminism in 2013, or some brand new topic in 2015, it’s clearly a part of my life. My choices are never speak, or be harassed for speaking. The topics really don’t matter. Because none of this is about ethics in game journalism, protecting the unborn, or defending feminism, comics, or science fiction from the perceived threat of people wanting them to be more inclusive.

This Can Happen to Anyone

Person typing on a keyboard.

Photo CC-BY Caleb Roenigk.

I’m a writer, I’m a Black woman with opinions, I’m someone who has served my country and who will absolutely critique any aspect of it that affects me or people I care about, because that’s how free speech works. Here’s the thing, I don’t have to listen to the people that tell me I deserve to be raped, the people who joke about finding me and assaulting me, or the ones that threaten to shoot my kids. Conversely, they don’t have to listen to me. They could (as I do) use the tools at their disposal to block everything that annoys them, bores them, or angers them. They could make podcasts, blogs, or videos about their beliefs and leave the people they disagree with alone. If this was about defending some ideal, or espousing some particular ideological difference, then that is exactly what we would be seeing happen.

Instead, what unfolds over and over is a form of mob mentality. The handful of angry tweets or comments in the beginning spark broader discussions that are seemingly innocuous. After all, they aren’t explicitly directed at you, but they come with a side of directing new people to you. And sure, some of those people will be on your side, but a whole lot of others will decide (whether they have a problem with what you said or not) that you deserve to be harassed. Because victim blaming is a thing that our society does so well and for so many situations. After all, you had the nerve to speak in public, if you didn’t want this attention well then you would have kept your experience to yourself. Bonus points if you have a few thousand followers online, and someone can claim you’re a public figure with no right to any kind of privacy. Because then the harassment that follows is definitely your fault for existing where people can see you.

Being harassed is enough to damage your faith in humanity. The realization that a whole lot of seemingly decent people participate directly or indirectly pretty much destroys it. People will signal-boost harassing comments because they think they’re funny or they agree or sometimes, just because they’re retweeting everything that they see. That’s at least overt, and you can see their motives. Worse yet are the concern trolls and agony vultures who seemingly care about what’s happening, but really want to make sure you know it’s your fault for speaking. Or they want to make themselves the heroes of some narrative that only makes sense if you forget that real people are being harmed.

Targets of harassment cease to be actual human beings in the eyes of many, in fact overwhelmingly if you read comments made by people joining in the harassment, even they aren’t even aware of the potential ramifications of their own bad behavior. They will insist harassment is an awful thing and no one should be harassed, then they will tweet insults at the target, accuse them of making up the harassment they are participating in, and when confronted with screen caps of their own tweets, insist that it wasn’t harassment. In fact if targets block them, or are using an auto blocker program, they swear it’s a violation of their free speech rights to be blocked. Because apparently someone refusing to listen to you verbally abuse them means they’re silencing you. In reality it means that you have the right to speak, but not the right to a captive audience.

You’re Not Safer Because You’re Not A Target…Yet

Image of a target with bullseye.

Photo CC-BY Nicolas Raymond, filtered.

The rules of the harassment game never really change, but the potential for harm keeps escalating. Sure, you…individual you, probably won’t participate in any of the plans to rape and murder one of us. Probably. But your friend might, because as far as they know if the threats are cool, if the game of terrorizing people is big fun, then what could be more fun than actually going through with it? After all, every single time this topic comes up, even if someone is driven to hurt themselves to get away from the harassment, nothing much changes. Because it’s just a game, and who can really get hurt by a few tweets or emails?

Oh right, a lot of people can. If that sounds like an exaggeration, feel free to look up the number of incredibly silly motives for actual murders that have happened. They range from fights on Facebook to arguments about TV shows to snacks.

Keep playing the harassment game, and you’ll get to add Twitter to that list.