A feedback loop of half-baked rumors and willful misinformation whips a corner of the Internet into such a frenzy that someone shows up, armed, in broad daylight, to confront the target of their paranoid hatred.
This time, it happened in Washington, D.C., when police said Edgar Maddison Welch drove from North Carolina earlier this month in hot pursuit of an Internet conspiracy theory revolving around the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria. Authorities say he walked into the restaurant with an assault rifle and fired it; fortunately, harming no one. Now he faces a federal charge of transporting a firearm across state lines.
The alleged gunman came from a corner of the Internet that is utterly convinced that Comet is harboring a child sex trafficking ring that implicates Hillary Clinton, John Podesta and other Democratic Party operatives. Media reports to the contrary are viewed as additional evidence of collusion. Comet, its owner, any bands that have played there and even neighboring businesses have become targets of harassment, too.
But “Pizzagate” isn’t the first time the darker parts of the Internet have delivered up sustained, orchestrated harassment on the back of a convoluted nest of lies. The same tactics, the same platforms, even some of the same people have been at this before.
In 2016, it’s Pizzagate. In 2014, it was “Gamergate.”
If Pizzagate is surprising, it’s because memories of Gamergate have been locked away in a “pink ghetto,” marginalized as a women’s issue that can be safely ignored.
Gamergate started with a man lashing out at his game developer ex-girlfriend through a blog post crafted to incite the Internet against her. The maelstrom of subsequent accusations and threats sent Zoe Quinn into hiding. The furor soon sucked in anyone associated with her and those who sought to defend her. Targets were barraged with hatred via email and social media. Their employers were pressured to fire them. Sometimes their home addresses were publicly disseminated. Harassers made fake 911 calls to dispatch SWAT teams to their targets’ houses.
When discussion of online harassment exploded into the mainstream a few years ago after Gamergate, I thought it would mean change was on the horizon. Today, I can see these years have been an utter waste. A federal bill to punish “swatting” sits in limbo. Reddit is still convulsed in the same battle with itself that it’s been fighting since 2014. A handful of bad actors are permanently banned from Twitter (though white nationalist Richard Spencer was un-banned this week).
After I wrote a book about online harassment last year, conference organizers began to regularly contact me to speak at their events. I have spoken at the invitation of universities, law schools, technology companies and governmental organizations. At first, I was hopeful that it might spark some change. Over time, I saw that the issue of online harassment was being relegated to a pink ghetto.
Panels about online harassment, stacked with women, became an easy way for conferences to pad their diversity statistics. Too frequently, speakers were not asked what the solutions should be, but simply expected to relive personal trauma for the edification of the audience. Institutions and corporations behaved as though “addressing online harassment” meant the mere act of passively listening to someone recount what had happened to her. But now I wonder if even that happened. If people had listened then, would they be so surprised by Pizzagate now, which follows a pattern uncannily similar to Gamergate?
Back then, just as in Pizzagate, the mob had no rhyme or reason — some of their targets were Quinn’s friends, some of them were other women in the video game industry and still others were simply random individuals speaking out against the emerging harassment.
The frenzy reached extreme heights. In 2014, the Game Developers Conference received a bomb threat in response to a scheduled appearance at its awards ceremony by Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist games critic. While her appearance went on as planned, a month later, she canceled a speech at Utah State University after an email threatened a shooting massacre at the event.
Proponents claimed their movement was about “ethics in video game journalism” — namely, that certain games had received better reviews thanks to the sexual perfidy of their female creators. Such allegations were baseless and quickly disproved, but that’s hardly the point: The idea that any video game review merits death threats is patently absurd. If you could somehow set aside the bomb threats, the swatting and the armed man marauding through a neighborhood pizza parlor, the actual allegations behind both Gamergate and Pizzagate are essentially ridiculous. Yet as the accusations stack up, targets were turned into shadowy folk villains who could never quite dispel the cloud around them.
Conspiracy theories and the communities that spring up around them were certainly around before the Internet, but they’ve never been the same since. All the things that make communication fun, fast and convenient also breathe life and urgency into visions of fear. The World Wide Web’s hyperlinking protocol becomes a superpowered version of the conspiracy theorist’s corkboard, stringing together articles, posts, pictures without context or explanation, supplying the paranoid mind with its bespoke Wikipedia of horrors.
Opportunistic people learned to hijack the obsession of the online crowds. Many of the microcelebrities of the “alt-right” on the Internet built their brands during Gamergate. Mike Cernovich went from being relatively unknown to a voice for the alt-right. (Shortly after Welch showed up at Comet Ping Pong, Cernovich filmed a video of himself ranting about how the incident itself was fake — which was then clipped on a CNN segment about Pizzagate). Milo Yiannopoulos, despite having never played a video game in his life, glommed onto the Gamergate phenomenon and rode it out to his benefit, using his platform at Breitbart to write long rambling “exposés” of various Gamergate targets, regardless of whether they were public figures.
One anonymous poster attracted enough ire from Gamergate that she was outed as a woman named Sarah Nyberg and smeared as a pedophile. Nyberg’s loved ones received threats, her sites were hacked and her employment has been repeatedly targeted.
Today, Nyberg still receives abuse. As for Yiannopoulos, he was scheduled to speak last week at Miami University in Ohio about “PIZZAGATE: The deep Dish on Liberalism and Pedophilia.” Shortly after the Comet shooting, he changed the topic of his talk.
Yiannopoulos was permanently banned from Twitter earlier this year, after inciting abuse against “Saturday Night Live” cast member Leslie Jones. But by 2016, he and others like him had already gotten plenty of experience in riling up the Internet with rumors, imputations and slurs.
It was never “just” the Internet. Even if the opportunistic leaders of the alt-right don’t actually believe that a D.C. pizzeria is secretly a child trafficking operation, the Internet will help them reach someone who will — and that someone might have a gun.
This kind of sustained, organized harassment is a complex phenomenon of the modern age that deserves deeper study, and real action to prevent or mitigate violence in the future. But we should have gotten a start on it two years ago.
A dysfunctional Congress has failed to pass even the most milquetoast of bills to address online harassment — an uncontroversial tweak to an existing statute that imposes real jail time for fake 911 dialers when their prank call results in injury.
More disappointing, the technology industry, which so prides itself on moving fast and breaking things, crawled at a snail’s pace to implement the simplest of fixes. Twitter finally offered shared blocklists over a year after an ex-Twitter employee created a free software Web app in his spare time to do the exact same thing.
Victims asked for little and received even less. They wanted solutions and only got sympathy. The issue was relegated to the margins, and anti-harassment became a fashionable token of cultural sensitivity. Meanwhile, the very worst parts of the alt-right festered into their present form.
Pizzagate is a bad sequel that we could have stopped. Maybe this time we can do more than pretend to listen.