How the dark legacy of Gamergate is still shaping our poisoned political environment
Five years have passed since the Gamergate controversy, which took the online culture wars to another level. Gamergate had a major impact not only technologically, but also, politically. And the many ways in which Gamergate left a lasting impression on politics and the internet are the subject of several interrelated New York Times articles published in mid-August.
Gamergate started in August 2014, when the ex-boyfriend of video game designer Zoe Quinn posted a lengthy online rant attacking her. That rant went viral and, as Charlie Warzel recalls in one of the Times articles, sparked a whole series of events and “spiraled into an online culture war” that ended up “ensnaring female gaming critics like Anita Sarkeesian and other designers like Brianna Wu who would suffer months of relentless abuse on and offline.”
With Gamergate, Warzel explains, the far right went into overdrive — inventing fake online accounts and hounding critics relentlessly. It was with Gamergate, according to Warzel, that the alt-right truly perfected the art of harassing and trolling opponents. Fake hashtags like #EndFathersDay and #WhitesCantBeRaped were falsely attributed to feminists in order to discredit feminists.
Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse University, told Warzel, “The energy and ideology of this movement weren’t new, but Gamergate was when the movement evolved and the monster grew a voice box. All the anger, all the toxicity and fear of being replaced by a culture more focused on social justice — it all came together in a spectacularly awful way.”
Gamergate, Warzel notes, helped far-right media figures like Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos grow in prominence. Warzel recalls that Bannon, who was chairman of Breitbart News at the time, “saw Gamergate as an opportunity to ignite a dormant, Internet-native audience toward a focused and familiar cause: that feminism and social justice had spiraled out of control…. Breitbart’s coverage elevated Gamergate across a growing far-right media ecosystem.”
That “far-right media ecosystem,” as Warzel describes it, is alive and well in 2019.
“Today, five years later,” Warzel asserts, “the elements of Gamergate are frighteningly familiar: hundreds of thousands of hashtag-swarming tweets, armies of fake Twitter accounts, hoaxes and disinformation percolating in murky chat rooms and message boards before spreading to a confused mainstream media, advertiser boycotts.”
Warzel adds that in 2019, Gamergate’s impact is “evident in the way foreign actors use bot accounts to manipulate public sentiment and in the way President Trump uses Twitter to rally his supporters around corporations” as well as in “shady crowdfunding campaigns” for a U.S./Mexico border wall.
Wu, in a separate Gamergate-related article in the Times’ series, recalls becoming “a primary target of Gamergate” — including rape threats and death threats.
“Gamergate gave birth to a new kind of celebrity troll: men who made money and built their careers by destroying women’s reputations,” Wu observes. “It poisoned our politics and our society. Attacks on journalists, disinformation campaigns, the online radicalization of young men — these are depressingly familiar symptoms of our current dysfunction.”
In a third article, feminist Joan Donovan describes a precursor to Gamergate: a movement in which trolls from the far-right 4Chan “infiltrated the #solidarityisforwhitewomen movement on Twitter” and set out to promote divisions between African-American and white feminists online by creating “fake accounts that mimicked the style and language of black feminists.”
However, Donovan recalls, “The trolls overplayed their hand: these overly simplified interpretations of black feminism were laughable to those whose culture they were impersonating, and the only group that seemed to truly believe it was Fox News. Black feminists identified hundreds of fake accounts.”
A fourth article in the series, written by the Times’ opinion writer Sarah Jeong, draws a parallel between Gamergate and the type of abuse, death threats and severe harassment that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford suffered after alleging that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh tried to rape her at a party in 1982.
“In 2019,” Jeong writes, “the bizarre mix of conspiracy theory, Internet harassment and the rallying cry against ‘social justice warriors’ and ‘political correctness’ is all too familiar. By the time Christine Blasey Ford’s family was forced to flee their home because of death threats — spurred on by viral lies on Facebook — the pattern was well established.”
Jeong notes that she requested an interview with Ford for her article, but Ford’s attorney, Debra Katz, “told me that whenever her client appears in the news, the harassment flares up again.” And similarly, Jeong points out, Quinn “still lives like a fugitive” five years after Gamergate because of all the threats and harassment she has experienced.”