The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What tolerating online harassment costs us

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During the years that feminist video gaming critic Anita Sarkeesian has been subject to a torrent of violent harassment, one frequent response I have heard is that the threats are not “serious”; that is, the people making them do not actually intend to bomb the Game Developers Choice Awards, beat Sarkeesian to a bloody pulp in person rather than through a simulation, or harm her parents. Most recently, Sarkeesian canceled a speech at Utah State University after a letter threatened a massive school shooting in retaliation for her invitation.

To some observers, threats made online are ephemeral, abstract even in their fantastical, violent detail. And yet, a threat to carry out a school shooting does not actually have to result in an auditorium full of bodies to achieve what the letter-writer intended, to make it impossible for Sarkeesian to move forward with her talk. And a threat does not have to meet the legal threshold of a crime — in some states, evidence that the person issuing the threat has an actual intent and clear plans to carry it out — to levy extremely high social costs.

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 threats have financial costs. Local police departments and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have had to spend time investigating some of the frightening things that people have promised to do to Sarkeesian and her family, as well as to other women who have been deemed enemies of gaming. Utah State, where Sarkeesian was scheduled to speak this week, had planned to spend extra money on security for Sarkeesian’s talk so the school could enforce its bag ban and monitor the crowd with uniformed and undercover officers.

And there are smaller, more corrosive taxes that this sort of harassment levies on public life. The students at Utah State missed a chance to hear Sarkeesian speak. And now that university officials have made clear that the state’s concealed-carry gun laws prevent them from carrying out more comprehensive searches, those who want to shut down events at public institutions in states with similar regulations now know they have a new rhetorical weapon in their arsenal.

Wu and Quinn are presumably spending time ensuring their own safety that they might have dedicated to making new games. I have heard from people working in other media who pulled back from pursuing artistic careers because of harassment, focusing instead on careers that required less exposure. Writers pay for post office boxes rather than receive mail at home to limit how many people know their addresses.

It is not only creators and critics who pay these tariffs. Readers have told me that they avoid controversial subjects online, or ban certain buzzwords that attract a nasty response from their online vocabulary. When they play games online — if they still do — they disable chat features, spend a great deal of time blocking and reporting other players, avoid using headsets and chat functions, or even pay for private gaming servers.

Americans long ago decided that the preservation of our free speech rights was worth tolerating all sorts of terrible ways in which people use them. You can yell fire in a crowded theater so other people will be able to question the theater’s construction and the problems with the fire code that made it hard to evacuate the burning auditorium.

Even when we reaffirm these choices, it is worth tallying up what they have cost us. Over the past few months, the price has been discouragingly high.