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System Error

Fighting Online Abuse from Within

Zoë Quinn is a game developer, programmer, artist, and activist. She is also the victim of Gamergate, an ongoing campaign of targeted harassment levied against Quinn and other women in the video gaming industry. For the uninitiated, Quinn’s experience reads like dystopian science fiction — an embittered ex-lover fabricated a story that incited an anonymous internet mob to send rape and death threats that drove Quinn from her home, relationships, and career. Police, technology companies, and the justice system were of little use, and the abuse continued, largely unmitigated to this day.

Yet, in this era of fake news, alt-right radicalization, and #MeToo, Quinn’s experience is strikingly familiar, and Crash Override offers prescient advice for our times. As Quinn notes, “online abuse is by no means uncommon and can affect just about anyone for any reason” (5). A 2017 report from the Pew Research Center suggests that four in ten internet users have experienced some form of online harassment, and nearly 20 percent have experienced severe online harassment including stalking, sexual harassment, or physical threats. Quinn offers a number of tractable suggestions for preventing and mitigating this sort of online abuse. We would all do well to follow her advice and create stronger, unique passwords on all of our accounts (so long, audre4ever), use burner email accounts to sign up for nonessential websites and services, and delete old accounts, especially those that contain personal information such as phone numbers, addresses, and the names of our family members and friends.

Quinn also offers sage advice for supporting the victims of online abuse. All too often those experiencing online abuse are told to simply avoid going online. Police officers, judges, and even Quinn’s own therapist suggested she may want to seek an alternate line of work that does not rely so heavily on the internet. Reflecting on a judge’s decision not to issue criminal harassment charges against the man who orchestrated the online harassment campaign that targeted her because she could “just get offline,” Quinn says, “The internet was my home, and treating it like a magical alternate dimension where nothing of consequence happens was insulting. Telling a victim of a mob calling for their head online to simply not go online anymore is like telling someone who has a hate group camped in their yard to just not go outside” (107). When so many people rely on the internet for advice, entertainment, relationships, and work, it is simply abhorrent that our first — and often only — line of defense is to cut victims off from these systems of social support, pleasure, and financial opportunity. The pernicious implication is that the internet is inherently unsafe for some people, and that victims bear the burden of change.

Instead, we ought to look for ways to change the systems that allow online abuse to flourish. If there is a shortcoming in Crash Override, it is that Quinn is too gracious toward the multi-billion-dollar corporations that hosted and facilitated her abuse. This is, no doubt, partly because her current work as an advocate depends on productive relationships with organizations such as Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Google. However, the technology giants that enable and profit from online abuse and disinformation can and should do better. To paraphrase Quinn, it is difficult to imagine that the same companies that can find and remove copyrighted content within minutes cannot also find and remove abusers who make their platforms unsafe.

Of course, viable solutions will require collaboration across platforms that are reluctant to work together. Solutions will also need to balance safety against the autonomy and freedom of creative expression that makes the internet so wonderful. But this is not the first time an industry has voluntarily implemented safety protocols. Facing public and political pressure to warn consumers about inappropriate content in the 1930s, the motion picture industry implemented voluntary film ratings — a system that is far from perfect but that few would argue has substantially disrupted creative capacity or industry profitability.

Quinn notes a key limitation in the fight against online abuse is that “the incentives for [internet] companies to remove abusive users are not as compelling as they should be” (64). Rather than changing victims’ behavior, perhaps we can leverage the #MeToo sentiment sweeping through other media industries and incentivize technology companies to fight abuse within their systems. For an industry that prides itself on engineering solutions to difficult networked problems, I expect they are up for the challenge.

Brooke Foucault Welles is an assistant professor of communication studies and core faculty member of the Network Science Institute at Northeastern University. Her work appears in leading disciplinary and interdisciplinary journals, including the Journal of Communication, New Media & Society, and the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. This essay was originally published by Signs, as part of a Short Takes forum on Crash Override. The forum, which also includes essays by Leigh Alexander and Sydette Harry, is available on the Signs website.

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Brooke Foucault Welles

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