Today, Mark Kern is fighting a heroic battle to force the people who have faced withering online harassment and abuse to sit there and take that abuse or quit Twitter, rather than having access to tools that allow them to protect themselves.
I realize it’s been a couple of weeks since we talked about Mark Kern, the former Team Lead of World of Warcraft who would later grow to distrust the press because they had the gall to investigate crazy rumors and write articles about his magical crazy expensive bus. Mark Kern recently reappeared on the landscape 4 months after GamerGate started, and since then he’s been a real peach of a human being:
- Blaming the games media for Gamergate when in fact they’ve mostly been ignoring it,
- Arguing that getting the media to stop talking about harassment of developers is more important than getting that harassment to stop,
- Airing baseless propaganda as something worthy of discussion,
- Encouraging an internet flash mob to brigade the social media of the most important conference of his chosen profession,
- Wringing his hands because a room full of GDC attendees were an enthusiastic audience to Tim Schafer and his prepared sock.
- Complaining that he can’t blog or get press access, while simultaneously turning down offers allowing him to post blogs or do press interviews.
As you can tell, Mark Kern is at this point a parody of delusion -if he showed up on a Sitcom, you’d dismiss his unique brand of ignorant obstinance as too unrealistic to be believable. In today’s episode of ‘Mark Kern tilts at windmills then declares he’s oppressed’, he is desperately fighting for the right to be able to yell at people who have actively declared they don’t want to hear what he has to say.
GamerGate has a fun tradition whenever someone gets in their crosshairs, and that is to have everyone on the #gamergate hashtag know about it quickly and efficiently, and have all of those people fill the target’s Twitter feed with so much crap that Twitter ceases to be a useful tool, and where your first reaction is to go hide under the covers of your bed with the lights off. In many cases, the crap filling your feed is innoculous questions, or feigned offense (‘well, I never!’). These people will insist that harassment ISN’T actually happening, and that they’re just being civil and exercising their free speech. They ignore the fact that in many other cases from OTHER more enthusiastic and less civil gators, it takes the form of insults, beratement, veiled job threats, death and rape threats, roundabout questions about your family and friends, and even doxing and gorror porn.
There are many names that have been thrown around for the practice – brigading and Sea Lioning – but ‘dogpiling’ is probably the most accurate. And GamerGate is by no means the only group that dogpiles – those opposing gamergate are far less organized and focused, but still have been known to unleash their targeted wrath at times as well. Still, GamerGate is more effective at dogpiling than most. A few months ago, the collective community performed #OpSkyNet (GGers don’t take a dump without a snazzy Operation name), where all members of Gamergate made an active attempt to follow each other on Twitter. I should probably point out to college kids looking for thesis ideas – there is good evidence that this had some extremely wacky social dynamics as a result.
For starters, it turned the hashtag into even more of an echo chamber than it already was, for example, by increasing the % of your feed that was now wholly supportive of GamerGate. It made it impossible for casual observers to follow the feed at all, due to the massive number of retweets flooding out good content (I weeded out about 90% of the gators in my feed to get it back to readable again). The close-knitness of the community also resulted in vicious dogpiling attacks happening at astonishing speed.
I got to be the target of a good ol’ dogpiling a couple of times during the last few months. The most notable was when I proposed that GamerGate could do some good if they’d lay off the harassment and form a consumer organization. And yet, I know that what I got was mild compared to many women, which I have documented here. For those needing reminders, here’s Zoe talking about her harassment. Here’s Anita showing some of the very worst of one week of harassment. Here’s Sarah Butts describing the systematic attempts to make her online life hell. Here’s Jenn Frank with video of her twitter feed being hit so hard that she decided to stop writing about games for a while.
GamerGaters defend their right to do this as defending their free speech. This is an insult to people who actually understand what free speech is and why it’s important – it is more accurate to describe these actions as a calculated and deliberate attempt to sabotage the free speech of their targets. What they are attempting to do is to yell so loudly and negatively at people who disagree with them that those people choose to shut down their opposition and leave. It is an attempt to chill the free speech of people, especially in this case those who may have feminist or SJW points of view. These are the people that Mark Kern and co. are fighting so earnestly for.
Fortunately, #OpSkyNet also had the accidental result of also making Blockbots work much more effectively on #gamergate than they otherwise would have.
The GG Autoblocker is a relatively simple beast. It simply is a script that scrawls through exposed Twitter data, until it finds accounts that follow any two people from a very short blacklist of people – accounts like @Nero, @FartToContinue and @RoguestarGamez. These are accounts who have a history of, whether accidentally or intentionally, unleashing dogpile attacks on people who catch their ire. Put another way, they have VERY ENTHUSIASTIC followers. Anyway, if you follow two of those people, you’ll end up on Randi’s block list. Which for 99.999999% of all twitter users, means absolutely nothing.
Mark Kern is on the block list. Until yesterday, so was I. Getting off of the list is actually a relatively straightforward process if you’re not a douche – send a mail to the appeals board. They’ll look at your posting history and if your posting history isn’t full of harassing or dogpiling behavior, probably let you off the hook.
But here’s the thing – the only way you will be blocked by the autoblocker is if someone has signed up for the block service. This is a very small number of people – probably in the low thousands. These people have all actively declared they want less speech. They are all people who have opted out of gamergate discussions. They don’t want to hear it.
Mark believes its an abridgement of his right to free speech that he can’t talk to these people.
Many of these people were convinced to install the blocker after getting a taste of the GamerGate dogpiling experience. Elizabeth Sampat – a vocal opponent and favorite target of Gamergate – at GDC described the experience of turning on the blocker as a godsend. Once they discovered she’d been laid off, her twitter turned instantly into a toilet of awfulness. The blocker returned Twitter to a functional communications forum for her – useful, because she’s a writer, and communication is a core part of her job.
For this story, I asked Randi Harper if there were notable spikes in the use of the Autoblocker. She said there was one huge spike – GDC, when Mark Kern and co. were urging GamerGators to brigade the GDC hash tag – and they did, with all sorts of appalling filth. This maps well to my experience of being stopped in the halls of GDC by people wondering where they could find that thing I’d blogged about. Put another way, pretty much everybody who has installed the blocker has, in the past, encountered what GamerGate has to say when it has free speech, and decided they never want to hear from it again. Free speech had its chance for these people.
Mark Kern wants to sue to shut down tools like these, so that these people will be FORCED to hear the message of him and his allies. It is the height of myopic arrogance, and it’s appalling.
No one would argue that you should be forced to read mail from the people who want to sell you penis enlargement pills. No one would argue that you should be forced to read all traffic from all reddits if you read any reddit. And no one seriously believes that the Do Not Call list – a filtering list run by the freakin’ government, for christs sake – seriously runs afoul of first amendment rights. Penis enlargement companies and telemarketers have a right to the microphone, however, they do not have the right to enslave every possible listener into their audience to hear their insipid message.
The best way to think about these blockbots is that they are just spam filters, only instead of blocking out penis enlargement creams and offers from Nigerian princes, they block out name-calling, gaslighting, rape and death threats, creepy inquiries about your family, and the occasional spicy bit of gorror porn thrown in there for fun. Yes, sometimes a good tweet gets lost in the mix. Guess what – that happens with email spam bots too.
Dogpiling is spam. People have a right to defend themselves from spam, ESPECIALLY when it seeks to attack or terrorize them.
The denizens of GamerGate – who simply insist that this well-documented dogpiling does not exist – beg to differ. Grimachu ( author of several… boundary-stretching games) has sent Randi a laughable letter of intent to sue. Mark Kern also started to talk about getting lawyers and/or the EFF involved. Which led to this highly amusing conversation on Twitter.
Yes, it turns out that the EFF believes that freedom of speech includes the ability for people to be able to use the internet without fear of being harassed or intimidated. Which makes sense. Once you understand the power that is earned from being able to communicate freely without fear on the internet, then fighting harassment and abuse on the Internet quickly becomes one of the defining civil rights movements of our time. Far more so than ensuring that every troll has a right to bury your feed in a river of sea lioning and toxic hate.
Mark and others fighting to preserve the right to harass unwilling listeners believe they have discovered an end-around – by claiming that people maintaining these lists are effectively libeling those on it as harassers.
Lost in all of this debate about what is legal and what isn’t is the fact that Twitter is, still, a private network, and as such, they get to dictate what is acceptable speech and what isn’t acceptable speech. They have, in the past, been incredibly lax on addressing the issue of harassment — something that the CEO recently acknowledged and declared as a company mission to fix. They have, on the other hand, welcomed and encouraged tools like BlockTogether that help fix these inefficiencies.
Sadly, we probably have to hope that more celebrities like Ashley Judd and Curt Schilling’s daughter receive more well-publicized abuse, and put pressure on Twitter to get their house in order. Until Twitter cleans up their own house, we have user created tools like the block bots as the only thing that keeps Twitter from being utterly poisonous except to whichever faction of debaters can aggregate the loudest, angriest, and most shameless group of posters willing to go all out to destroy their opponents. If nothing changes, the only way that this path can end is with Twitter being a nuclear wasteland of horribleness, as all reasonable people flee to places where they can debate the issues of the day without seeing necro porn (yes, the gorror porn did, in fact scar me for life). If Twitter just lies back and waits for that to happen, then Twitter will die – and it will deserve to do so.
There are concerns with the block bots. One key example is that block statistics probably factor into Twitter suspension and banishment decisions, and thus being included in someone’s block bot can put your account into a more frail space without you realizing it. Also, the block bots aren’t integrated into the service, which means that they’re hard to find for the harassed and hard to understand and get off of for people who feel wrongfully placed on them. Twitter should be putting in better tools for filtering and blocking in themselves. Until then, though, people who have been put through the ringer on these blockers have only these simple tools.
Whether or not Mark Kern has more noble goals in mind, it is a lie that these tools somehow inhibit his right to free speech. Whether or not Mark Kern has more noble goals in mind, opposition to the block bot really is, at it’s core, demanding that harassment victims sit there and take what’s coming to them.
That may not be what Kern is consciously trying for, but it certainly is what the trolls want. Combine that with their insistence that victims also not talk about or report their harassment, and the agenda becomes very clear. The opposition to the block bots is this virulent for one simple reason: they are very effective at what the harassed want them to do: stopping incoming dogpiling and abuse.