When Trolls Attack & GamerGate Is Scapegoated
Over the past year, I have written several times about the biased and shoddy media coverage of #GamerGate, the hashtag movement that claims to stand against unethical journalism and “politically correct” diktat in videogame culture and that has been widely portrayed as a misogynist harassment mob. This journalistic malpractice continues. Most recently, it has actually spilled over into reportage related to the Paris terror attacks, with GamerGate blamed—almost certainly wrongly—for a doctored photo that caused a Canadian Sikh man to be briefly misidentified as an Islamist terrorist. The real facts of this bizarre episode are somewhat elusive, but it offers useful object lessons on GamerGate, journalism, and the culture wars.
The day after the Nov. 13 wave of terror in Paris, several European media outlets, including Sky Italy and a major Spanish newspaper, ran what was said to be a photo of one of the terrorists. The image, which showed a man in a turban in front of a mirror, wearing a suicide vest and holding up a Koran, had gone viral on pro-jihadist Twitter accounts after being posted by user “Blacktric” with the text, “One of the Paris suicide bombers’ photo’s been released. He posted the photo on Twitter shortly before the attack.”
In fact, the man in the picture was Toronto freelance journalist Veerender Jubbal, and the image was digitally altered from a selfie Jubbal had shared online. (The fake image was originally posted as a joke in August, unrelated to any terror attacks.) When the hoax was exposed, Jubbal, a social justice activist who created the #StopGamerGate2014 hashtag last year, quickly suggested that it was the work of his GamerGate persecutors.
A BuzzFeed report on the story uncritically put this claim in the headline (“GamerGaters Photoshopped A Sikh Man to Look Like An Alleged Paris Attacker”), but the assertion was disputed, and “GamerGaters” in the headline was changed to “Someone.” GamerGate detractors who had jumped on the accusation found themselves on the defensive, making easily lampooned statements like “we know the official creator wasn't actually one of you ... that's irrelevant.” Others said that even if GamerGaters were not responsible, the group had shown its true racist colors by making fun of Jubbal’s predicament.
Then, on November 17, Vice Canada published a report which seemed to vindicate the initial claim that the culprits were GamerGaters. Author Rich Stanton asserted that both “Blacktric” and the actual author of the fake image, known by the colorful username @turd_wartsniff (abbreviated to “TW” for propriety), were “intimately linked to GamerGate.” He noted that TW had made Photoshop images mocking several other frequent GamerGate targets, such as feminist videogame critic Anita Sarkeesian and writer Arthur Chu. As for Blacktric, Stanton pointed to “his posting on the GG subreddit KIA,” a tweet praising GamerGate as “the greatest thing that's ever happened to both gaming and journalism,” and friendly Twitter chatter with pro-GamerGate lawyer Mike Cernovich. Then came the coup de grace: “Astonishingly, amongst the evidence offered by Gamergate that blacktric has no association with them is a tweet where he refers to GG as ‘us’.”
For GamerGate critics such as David Futrelle, whose blog We Hunted the Mammoth is dedicated to mocking and exposing anti-feminists on the Internet, GamerGate’s guilt was “conclusively proven” by the Vice article.
Yet the Vice account of Blacktric’s GamerGate connections is highly selective. For instance, the tweet in which Blacktric apparently refers to GamerGate as “us” actually says, “I don't want gamergate heard because I think it’s mostly comprised of retarded zealots like you who give us a bad name.” (The “you” in the tweet is prominent GamerGater Oliver Campbell; the meaning of “us” seems open to interpretation.) Blacktric’s now-deleted posts on Kotaku in Action, the GamerGate forum on Reddit, are complaints about the forum and—judging from the responses—attacks on Campbell.
Other tweets saved from Blacktric’s defunct Twitter account are fairly hostile toward GamerGate, occasionally referring to GamerGaters as “n*GGers.” In an August exchange, Blacktric says that he “stopped following GG s**t long ago” and that he follows an ex-“gater” who frequently baits the group “because he knows how to get n*GGers mad over nothing, which always produces entertaining results.”
As for TW, on the day the Vice article appeared he used a backup Twitter account to post a series of tweets about the fake photo of Jubbal. He blamed the fiasco on the media, pointing out that the Photoshopped image had numerous details that should have tipped journalists off to its fakeness—including a very visible sex toy in the background—but also wrote, “It’s very funny though that GamerGate got the blame, I would lie saying that it doesn't amuse me profoundly.”
Several GamerGaters told me that both Blacktric and TW were part of a group known as “the #AyyTeam,” which one of them characterized as “an unpleasant collection of nihilists, lunatics and mayhem-for-the-lulz types that troll and cause trouble for everyone regardless of affiliation.” And what exactly is this “AyyTeam,” which does turn up in Blacktric’s archived tweets—sometimes in a context of mocking GamerGate? A discussion on the GamerGate Reddit forum last April describes it as a GamerGate splinter group that shares the movement’s dislike of “social justice warriors” but seems to devote much of its energy to attacking GamerGate itself.
Ironically, it seems that AyyTeam’s quarrel with GamerGate was mainly over the latter’s quest for legitimacy as a movement, including its efforts to disavow online abuse—efforts almost entirely erased from the mainstream media narrative. (On occasion, anti-GamerGate journalists grudgingly acknowledged the group’s harassment-patrolling activities—but with no effect on subsequent GamerGate coverage.)
I did find a GamerGater who was still in contact with TW and offered to put me in touch with him; the result was a brief online chat. Obviously, anything said by someone who admits to a history of “messing with people” must be taken with a grain of salt. For what it’s worth, though, TW told me that he never “identified as GG,” never posted on GamerGate forums or participated in any of its email campaigns targeting advertisers on supposedly unethical media sites, and never debated GamerGate adversaries on Twitter. Was he ever in GamerGate? Depends on how you define “being GG,” TW said: “I was basically just following this whole thing, making stupid edits/shops of stuff and posting in the tag at first."
TW was also frank about the fact that he trolled GamerGate later on, often using throwaway accounts, and that he saw GamerGate as an easy target for baiting because of its members’ tendency to “overreact.” However, he denied that either he or Blacktric were part of “AyyTeam” and insisted that he didn’t even know who was in that group, saying that “it’s GG's favorite boogeyman, same as GG is the internet’s boogeyman for bad things that happen.”
As for the reports linking Jubbal to the Paris attacks, TW once again blamed the media, pointing out that the sex toy in the altered photo should have immediately given it away as a fake: “I put it there to make it REALLY obvious.” For the record, I also received a message from “Blacktric,” who did not comment on his relationship with GamerGate but expressed remorse over the tweet that misidentified Jubbal as one of the attackers, saying that he wishes he could take it back.
The Jubbal hoax was certainly an ugly prank, and potentially a highly damaging one. But whether its perpetrators were malicious or reckless, it seems fairly clear that they were not, in any meaningful sense, “GamerGaters.” It may be accurate to call them ex-GamerGaters who had been on the movement’s fringe, or renegade GamerGaters. (Not even the movement’s strongest supporters would deny that the hashtag has attracted some trollish types.) But they also provide some support for GamerGate’s longstanding claims that much of the mayhem associated with the movement comes from third-party trolls who get a kick out of baiting both sides.
As for GamerGaters’ gloating over the story, much of it was at the media’s expense, with tweets arguing that the shoddy performance of the press was precisely the kind of lapse that the group’s “ethics in journalism” crusade had targeted. Some also said that they saw Jubbal’s experience as “karma,” since he had supported the portrayal of GamerGaters as terrorists. While this may sound childish and vindictive, a look at Jubbal’s GamerGate-related tweets—in which he said that anyone supporting GamerGate was “terrifying”; told a female GamerGater who complained of harassment by GamerGate opponents to leave the movement; and repeated a false rumor that GamerGate got a critic’s dog killed—makes the sentiment somewhat understandable.
Paolo Munoz, a software developer for a large corporation and an independent game developer who has been active in GamerGate from the start, admitted to me that his first reaction to Jubbal’s situation was “Schadenfreude” after seeing people in GamerGate lose their jobs and suffer other personal damage “because of false accusations of terrorism.” But Munoz also says that he “initially didn’t recognize the danger Veerender was in” and that once he did, his attitude changed: “Victims of irresponsible journalism deserve our sympathy, even those who've mocked us for demanding ethics reforms.”
If many GamerGaters have been rather cavalier about Jubbal’s disturbing experience, they are, sadly, neither the first nor the last group to show lack of sympathy for an adversary in online wars (or offline political wars, for that matter). In the meantime, while Jubbal has been quickly exonerated, the bum rap against GamerGate continues to be recycled.
Thus, a recent piece in the left-wing magazine In These Times on a controversy around an online harassment panel at the upcoming South by Southwest digital culture festival suggests that GamerGate was responsible for the “SWATting” of one of the panelists, anti-harassment activist Randi Harper. (“SWATting” refers to a fake 911 call intended to dispatch a SWAT team to the victim’s home.) Yet there is no evidence linking Harper's SWATting to GamerGate. A similar incident involving another GamerGate critic was linked (according to Verge, hardly a pro-GamerGate publication) to “unaffiliated trolls” from a forum dedicated to “general anti-social mayhem” where users openly joked about letting GamerGate take the blame.
In These Times also approvingly notes that some call GamerGate “a terrorist movement.”
In fact, as the culture-wide rebellion against authoritarian “social justice” politics gathers momentum—from the campus wars to the new season of “South Park”—GamerGate looks increasingly relevant as that rebellion’s first spark. Does this movement have its unsavory side? Sure, as does virtually any movement. Ironically, the Vice article blaming GamerGaters for the attack on Jubbal concluded by quoting Jubbal’s own admonishment not to “paint entire … communities with the same brushstroke.” Journalists would do well to heed that advice when it comes to GamerGate.