GamerGate has come to represent a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But to a core group of astoundingly fervent supporters, the ongoing saga has never been about women, or harassment, or even video games. It’s about fighting what they see as a massive, progressive conspiracy among female game developers, feminists and sympathetic, left-leaning media outlets, all of whom are purportedly bent on the destruction of the traditional “gamer” lifestyle.
In some ways, that links GamerGate to a long history of reactive social movements, from the tea party to the Christian right. (Deadspin’s Kyle Wagner actually has a masterful essay on that heritage here, and it’s worth reading in full.) But Gamergate — born from a hashtag and incubated on anonymous message boards — is not your grandmother’s social movement. This is a modern Internet campaign, using modern Internet tactics. And as such, it has spent the past month trying to win the Internet media over … or at least beat them down until they stop critiquing the movement.
In that regard, at least, the bad guys seem to be winning.
Per the group’s own message boards and online forums, a dozen media sites are targets of the campaign, including Gawker-owned Kotaku (and all other Gawker properties), Vox Media’s Polygon, Ars Technica, Wired, TechCrunch and The Guardian. The attack strategy is two-part: first, boycott the sites in question; second, pressure their advertisers to do the same.
The “operation,” as organizers have dubbed it, is called Disrespectful Nod, and it’s steadily picked up steam since it launched quietly in early September. According to the group’s records, half a dozen advertisers — including significant international companies, such as Unilever and Scottrade — have been persuaded to drop major media buys within the past six weeks.
In early October, Intel hastily withdrew advertising from Gamasutra, a news site for game developers, as a result of the letter-writing campaign. (The piece over which the site lost funding was an essay critiquing video game culture and attacks on women in the industry; many readers — including, apparently, Intel — read it as a “sneering, vicious denunciation of an entire group of people.”) The Michigan Economic Development Corporation also asked Gamasutra not to run its ads next to the essay, out of fears that it appeared to mock the “gamer” demographic advertisers were trying to reach.
And on Friday, the campaign claimed another high-profile victory: Mercedes Benz USA temporarily suspended its ads across Gawker Media — which had covered Gamergate critically for weeks — over mocking tweets about gamers sent by reporter Sam Biddle. Donna Boland, Mercedes’s manager of corporate communications, confirmed that Mercedes received “numerous complaints” about Biddle’s tweets, which prompted the company to pull its advertising from Gawker “while we assessed a situation.”
Mercedes has since reinstated its campaign, and Gawker did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But the incident still demonstrates a worrying new trend among the Gamergate crowd: curbing the speech of reporters they don’t like by threatening their advertisers. For a media empire, such as Gawker, of course, one advertiser won’t necessarily make or break operations. But for targeted sites like Gamasutra, a smaller, gaming industry news site, or Gameranx, a five-person operation, targeting advertisers isn’t just a form of protest: It’s a threat to their very existence.
“If you’re concerned with ethics in games journalism, the best thing you can do is contribute to an atmosphere where journalists are not afraid to speak their mind,” said Ian Miles Cheong, the editor-in-chief of Gameranx. “When you target a writer’s livelihood because you disagree with their opinion, you’re enabling the hostile atmosphere that leads to silence and dishonesty.”
Here, for the record, is how Gamergate does it — paraphrased from their own five-step war plans.
Step 1: Consult Gamergate’s compiled list of media organizations and reporters that have somehow wronged the movement. Once you have chosen the organization you would like to target, head over to the list of companies that advertise with that Web site and select one of them.
Step 2: Consider the instance of “media malpractice” you plan to complain about. Other members of the movement have helpfully gathered examples already, as part of “Operation Dig Dig Dig”: You might like to try the fact, for instance, that a gaming site reported on the harassment of game developer Zoe Quinn without acknowledging the remote possibility that Quinn may have made the whole thing up. Or you might flag the egregious “conflict of interest” between Quinn and the volunteer moderator of Reddit’s gaming forum: said moderator is a friend of a co-worker of Quinn.
Step 3: Choose an article on your targeted site to complain about or allege offense to. (It does not have to be related to the conflict of interest in step 2.) If no articles seem sufficiently offensive, comb through reporters’ tweets for more material.
Step 4: Plug all of your choices into one of the many form e-mails that leaders of Disrespectful Nod have helpfully written already. Most of them go something like this:
Step 5: Keep it up, even when you get no response, and be — to quote the operation’s guide! — “an annoying little s—.” A representative for a high-profile communications company that advertises on Polygon confirmed that he’d received “dozens” of e-mails from Gamergate supporters over a period of several weeks.
Operation Disrespectful Nod also encourages Gamergaters to reach out to the bosses and managers of journalists who have written “negative” stories, demanding the reporter in question be fired or asked to resign. Topping their most-wanted list, at present, is Gawker Media’s Biddle, who tweeted a string of jokes about Gamergate on Thursday. In context, at least, the jokes were an obvious — if tongue-in-cheek — commentary on the movement’s well-documented, often hateful, idiocy. Critics construed them as an endorsement for bullying. (Biddle later apologized for the tweets.)
“We should be sending emails to Gawker’s advertisers,” one user wrote on 8chan, in reference to Biddle. “… Say you’re very offended. Gamasutra lost Intel over less. Getting advertisers to drop Gawker should be a piece of cake.”
Gawker media’s editorial director Joel Johnson appeared to confirm this fear in an internal staff memo later posted on the journalism site Romenesko: “I don’t want to tell you what to tweet,” he started out — before essentially telling staff to rein their jokes and commentary in, lest it spook more advertisers.
The problem with this line of thinking, of course, is that it makes “inoffensiveness” the only standard for speech online. And the people judging offense, in this case, are a small, motivated, niche group with an ax to grind and plenty of time on their hands. Should similar groups mobilize around other types of news, and should advertisers be persuaded by then, the possibilities for chilling speech are pretty grim. Operation Disrespectful Nod is advocating for a future where news organizations only print stories that mollify their readers. (Which is an awfully frightening future, actually.)
“[We] broadcast the message that we can be cornered into a pious disavowal by a plainly disingenuous troll campaign ginned up by some of America’s most prolific masturbators,” complained Deadspin editor Tommy Craggs in a response to Johnson. “I understand that a certain amount of realpolitik is necessary for maintaining cordial relationships with our advertisers, and that it’s easy for me to be righteous when for the most part I’m cosseted from any hard considerations, but the memo and the apology … seemed to cross some sort of editorial Rubicon.”
Unfortunately, neither advertisers, nor Gamergaters, nor the overlords at Gawker seem to understand that principle. On Reddit, several users claimed to have spent hours spamming ad executives and public policy liaisons. On 8chan, anonymous posters keep egging each other on to send yet more e-mails, to target more media sites. And in office e-mails, Gawker editors are — apparently — giving up.
“I don’t think this one was worth fighting for,” Johnson wrote to his staff. “Maybe I’m wrong, though. Maybe they’re all worth fighting for.”