The extremely violent hate posse attacking women in conjunction with Gamergate is horrific. Whatever other issues are involved, the fact that women have been threatened and intimidated so graphically and violently that they have been driven from their homes pushes the weak accusations of compromised gaming journalism to the background. However, it shines a spotlight on some troubling trends that we’re going to have to grapple as digital technologies reshape our societies.
Gamergate isn’t just a group of criminally violent griefers intent on making women’s lives miserable as a form of sport. As Kyle Wagner of Deadspin points out, there are also groups using it to engage in “grievance politics”:
In many ways, Gamergate is an almost perfect closed-bottle ecosystem of bad internet tics and shoddy debating tactics. Bringing together the grievances of video game fans, self-appointed specialists in journalism ethics, and dedicated misogynists, it’s captured an especially broad phylum of trolls and built the sort of structure you’d expect to see if, say, you’d asked the old Fires of Heaven message boards to swing a Senate seat. It’s a fascinating glimpse of the future of grievance politics as they will be carried out by people who grew up online.
These groups are very effectively exploiting weaknesses in mainstream journalism. As Wagner says, “Even when not presupposing that all truth lies at a fixed point exactly equidistant between two competing positions, the American press works under the assumption that anyone more respectable than, say, an avowed neo-Nazi is operating in something like good faith.” Journalism is really poor at dealing with bad actors, tending to treat them as if they are acting in good faith and thus giving them a legitimacy that they do not deserve.
As journalists, we’ve got to stop allowing ourselves to be played like chumps, especially when it comes to politics. We all know the game. We’re being spun, but at some point, we have to be brave enough to call bullshit. As the editor of two local newspapers, trust me, I get a lot of pressure from readers to toe their political line. However, it is a fundamental part of our job to help our readers separate spin from reality, not to parrot talking points and definitely not to cave to political bullies.
We’re going to have to up our game quickly. Wagner’s article reminded instantly of Neal Stephenson’s dystopian political thriller, Interface, which he wrote with his uncle, J. Frederick George. I’ll agree with our friend Cory Doctorow, that the book is an “under-appreciated masterpiece”. I read the book in 2008, and the parallels with that year’s presidential election were eerie. The book, written in 1994, looks at the politics in a United States laid low by a housing crisis. An Illinois governor (rather than a Senator) is running for president and his campaign uses data to segment the electorate, something which is common place now that it has led to a technological arms race between campaigns to have the best data crunchers.
In Interface, the bad actor was a terrifying mash-up between Karl Rove (or most likely in 1994, his mentor Lee Atwater) and Hannibal Lechter. You don’t need a political bogey man to see where this leads. Combine ruthless political ambition, the unlimited cash of Citizens United era and a technological arsenal that only Neal Stephenson could dream of, and you can easily chart the terrifying trajectory of politics in the real world.
When I was covering the 2000 US presidential election, there was a couple of rich Texans who set up a shell political group, Republicans for Clean Air, attacking John McCain’s environmental record to support George W. Bush. Texas entrepreneur Sam Wyly headed up the group and had donated thousands to Bush’s campaign. His brother Charles, was a Bush “Pioneer”, a supporter who had helped raise more than $100,000 for the Bush campaign. The issues ads allowed the Wyleys to spend even more to support the Bush campaign. McCain cried foul, called Republicans for Clean Air a “sham group”, and said that the Bush campaign had to have been coordinating with the group, something which then and now would have been illegal. However, the McCain campaign was never able to prove coordination. More than a decade ago, we already saw the kind of campaigning that the Citizens United case would unleash.
Of course, that is low-tech, linear TV’s child play compared to what we are seeing with Gamergate. When you look at the techniques being used by some of these groups, such as creating sockpuppet social media accounts and using feminist critiques as a weapon against Brianna Wu (to demonstrate that her games were “anti-feminist”), you quickly get a sense of how the next partisan political scorched earth campaign will be fought. Sockpuppets will become the weaponised drones of popular opinion, amplifying marginal views so that they swamp mainstream opinion. The newest import from China will be the 50 Cent Party of paid political commenters. Gaming the system will take on an entirely different meaning.
With unlimited money flowing into politics thanks to Citizens United, a lot of cash could be poured into automating the process. Who needs robo-callers push-polling voters when you’ve got an army of AI-driven Twitter and Facebook accounts all spewing your line and endlessly quoted by cable TV show hosts who don’t care if the accounts are real, only if they reinforce their own talking points? They’ll be found out eventually, but it will be too late. A cynical electorate will be even more confused and all but the hardest of partisans will simply roll up into a foetal position to shut out the cacophony of spin. Moderates will be further marginalised as the bases retreat to the comfort of their sock puppet spun reality. Heaven help us.