Friday, October 17, 2014

#worthassigning -- 3 essays on rape and death threats against women in the age of #gamergate

Online violence against women scares and worries me. As it morphs from virtual threat, which is bad enough and still violent even if not overtly physical, into offline threats that drive women from their homes, offices, and families and into hiding, the damage and danger has become palpable enough to make news.

Writing in her Washington Post Blog, Act Four, Alyssa Rosenberg sums up the three high profile cases:
[Anita] Sarkeesian has had to leave her home because someone who threatened her claimed to have her address and that of her parents. Brianna Wu, who co-founded the video gaming company Giant Spacekat, also moved to avoid threats made in response not even to sustained criticism of video games, but to jokes she made about the Gamergate campaign. “Depression Quest” developer Zoe Quinn went into hiding after a vengeful ex-boyfriend published a long account of her alleged infidelities that seemed to imply she chose her partners for professional advancement.
These women's stories are in the news now, coming shortly after a spring and summer that brought much needed attention to campus sexual assaults and the lack of protections and justice most of its victims endure. It seems to me, then, a look at the issue of virtual assault having devastating consequences in physical world, can also increase understanding and shed light on campus sexual assault.

To that end, here are three pieces on virtual assault that I recommend and would assign. Note, these are frank discussions and long pieces. But they're compelling.

A Rape in Cyberspace

I'd start with Julian Dibbell's "A Rape in Cyberspace," available online at his

A version Dibbell's essay first appeared in the Village Voice in 1993. That's right, twenty years ago. Dibbell's piece focuses on how a violent virtual rape in LambdaMOO, a text based virtual world where rooms, characters, spaces and actions are all described in words that allowed players to enter, create avatars, and interact, shocked those LambdaMOO members into realizing they were a community. The article describes how the victim of the rape, though virtual, suffered physically -- fear, anxiety, tears. While the community recognized the rape as an assault, they realized there was nothing they could do to punish the perpetrator in real life, no way to bring charges, to get an arrest. And so they develop rules to try to deal with future actions virtually, by setting up guidelines for expelling offenders from the Moo.

I'd start with this piece for a few reason. It's one of the first, perhaps the first, documented case study of cyber rape and its affects. Unlike the underbelly of the contemporary accounts of virtual sexual assault under consideration in the next two pieces, the rapist didn't have recourse to comrades, drum up justification that blamed the woman he assaulted, or wage the assault in multiple sites and social networks. The rape happened in a relatively small and closed community, a community that became more formally formed in response to the rape, and because it was small, was able to adopt more quickly rules and policies to better protect members.

Why the Trolls Will Always Win

First published by Kathy Sierra at her own blog as "Trouble at the Koolaid Point," Wired Magazine republished her original post verbatim just days later with the title "Why the Trolls Will Always Win," and that's the version I link to here: I'm opting for Wired because Sierra indicates that she might at some point take her original post down.

But off the bat, a first question for students to consider -- how does the different title give by Wired shape their reading?

Sierra's piece marks the tenth year anniversary of her first online threat, of which, Sierra writes, "I thought it was a one-off, then. Just one angry guy. . . .  But looking back, it was the canary in the coal mine…". What's changed? Sierra's work picks up from the one angry guy, the kind of person the LambdaMOO community faced, to a world where social networking -- Twitter, especially in her personal experience -- amplifies and spreads the assault against a lone woman exponentially, as trolls amplify, get picked up, facts are ignored, lies are believed. She explains:
I now believe the most dangerous time for a woman with online visibility is the point at which others are seen to be listening, “following”, “liking”, “favoriting”, retweeting. In other words, the point at which her readers have (in the troll’s mind) “drunk the Koolaid”. Apparently, that just can’t be allowed.
[. . .]
But the Koolaid-Point-driven attacks are usually started by (speculating, educated guess here, not an actual psychologist, etc) sociopaths. They’re doing it out of pure malice, “for the lulz.” And those doing it for the lulz are masters at manipulating public perception. Master trolls can build an online army out of the well-intended, by appealing to The Cause (more on that later). The very best/worst trolls can even make the non-sociopaths believe “for the lulz” is itself a noble cause.
Sierra describes first what her experience tells her about the logic and motivation of trollers and then why and when she stepped back from online life -- how she was harrassed out, and why, with this post, she is stepping back in.

The Future Of The Culture Wars Is Here, And It's Gamergate

Written by Kyle Wagner in Deadspin, this piece (, published Tuesday, October 14, begins with the news that Brianna Wu fled her Boston home over the weekend, "after an online stalker vowed to rape and kill her."

Wagner does three very useful things.

  1. He explains the origin of #gamergate, a movement that claims to be about holding the press who cover the gaming industry to journalistic ethics, but that began with a deranged ex-lovers lies and rants about Wu Zoe Quinn, including the false claim that her romance with a journalist lead to a game she wrote being praised.
  2. He critiques the coverage of #gamergate in the traditional press, The New York Times and the like, noting that their instance on even handedness creates what press critics have called false equivalence, a logical fallacy. Such coverage lends undo legitimacy to those who committing the assaults.
  3. This is key, Wagner describes the mindset of the trollers and assaulters, why they feel aggrieved enough to do this, and he likens it the kind of motivations that drive certain segments of the Tea Party and other reactionary groups: change they don't like is coming. For some in the Tea Party, its the recognition, embodied in our first black President, that the nation's demographics are changing and that whites will become a minority.  For those in gamergate, its a reaction against the fact that more and more women play games, and that new games are emerging designed to appeal to those players. 

What Can One Learn From These?

Taken together these three essays move both historically and technologically. Dibbell's piece sets an early example, when the Web was young and new and a smaller place; Sierra's first person account gives voice to a victim of assault and violence in her own terms, introducing and explaining terms and techniques that show the role of social networks in turning the derangement of a lone actor into a a deranged and even more dangerous mob; and Wagner's work takes a step back, offering scathing attack on Wu's assailants and their motivations, and then tying it to a larger cultural trend.

Combined, these are long reads, but as I said, compelling. Each is written in Web vernacular, each is frank, each has its own truths to convey. I like them because they are one-sided, advocate for women and for a civil online social communities, even as the work by Sierra and Wagner show how difficult that goal is. I also think they bring forth the physical and psychological cost of assault, how the relentless nature of these kinds of attacks, have consequences in the offline world. This is not a painless crime, not just words.

And finally, they pieces shed light on the anger and entitlement mindsets of the attackers. So those insights, empathy for the attacked and anger and hate of the attackers, can provide some grounding for a discussion of campus sexual violence.

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