I opened my inbox and saw an email from a reporter for a New Orleans newspaper. “I came across your name today while researching an article,” he wrote. I assumed he was writing an article about online harassment and had reached out to me because I was a budding researcher in the field and a New Orleans native. I was excited that a local newspaper was interested in the topic, and flattered that the reporter had reached out to me. Then I kept reading:
…about a fairly unusual incident on [my mother’s street] this weekend. A hoax call about a threat at a home there prompted a large police response, I recognized this immediately as the harassment tactic known as ‘swatting,’ born out of the online gaming community.
I felt my face go very, very flush, and I felt my chest get very, very tight; everything seemed to get very, very heavy.
“After searching public records,” the email continued, “I discovered that the home targeted appears to be registered in your mother’s name, and from there I found your websites — which overlap in interests with some of the other female designers who have been targeted in swatting incidents in the recent past.”
I stopped reading after that.
My mom had been swatted and it was my fault.
Swatting is a “prank” in which a person places a call to the victim’s local police department, saying a violent crime has occurred, often involving hostages, so the SWAT team will show up and bust down their door. It’s happened to a few female game developers, and a games store in New Jersey during an event.
I called my mom right away, still staring at the email. She was so excited that I had called. She had so much news; my cousin had gotten a new job, and my sister had started dating someone new. But she didn’t mention the swatting. I cut her off five minutes into our conversation. “Mom,” I asked, “did the SWAT team come to your house?” She laughed and said it was a harmless prank by some hooligan. She told me a bunch of very attractive young men in gear came to her house to look around. She probably offered them wine, because that’s the kind of hospitable Southern mother I have.
“Mom,” I started again, “Have you heard of Gamergate?” She stopped laughing.
She got deadly silent when I told her what swatting was, and about the online harassment campaigns against feminists on Twitter perpetrated by a group called Gamergate. She asked what we could do in terms of legal action, and I told her probably nothing. Local police stations don’t track incoming calls and that’s where the SWAT team had been notified. Even if the number had been tracked, it was probably from an iPad (a regular swatting tactic) or a dummy number.
My mom asked what I had said to make people so angry, and what I had done to upset strangers so badly.
I’ve never felt worse about myself.
* * *
I had spent the past six months researching online harassment and how it works, but that hadn’t answered any questions of how to stop it while maintaining an active online presence, and without making your accounts private. As of now, the only real way to avoid being contacted by strangers (which opens the door to harassment) is to make your account private, but there should be a middle ground. The idea that to be safe from online harassment a person has to make their account private is akin to the idea that to be safe from rape a woman should not walk home alone at night. The problem is security in the system, not vulnerability in the user, so I’d been researching ways to safely (and publicly) interact online.
When I realized that there are very few systems in place for protecting people from online harassment, and the systems that do exist (like Block Together, which allows users to share block lists, or robust privacy settings that a user has to manually and painstakingly seek out on Facebook) are just scratching the surface, I decided to come up with a solution myself. I tried to come up with more advanced filter settings than “public” or “private” for Twitter and other social media sites, to protect users while allowing them to stay visible.
Apparently someone hadn’t liked my work. Every tweet I’d ever written about online harassment flashed through my mind as I tried to figure out what in particular I had said to piss someone off enough that they’d target my mother, and who it could have been.
It’s very hard to determine who’s harassing you online, unless the harassment comes from a single user and happens consistently, but that’s not usually how it works online. More often, online harassment is perpetrated by a mob. Brianna Wu, head of development at games studio Giant SpaceKat, has been harassed and threatened with rape and murder on Twitter, but not much has been done because the harassment is coming from a large number of users, who are difficult to track and stop. Online harassment techniques are incredibly different from offline harassment, and law enforcement is not yet used to dealing with it. Legally, it’s hard to prove the actionable threats of someone saying to another person “I’m going to kill you” online. It’s hard to get court-ordered documents to track people down for harassing online, and laws vary from state to state, so it’s necessary to know where the threat originated to know how to proceed.
* * *
I called the reporter who had originally informed me about the “prank” against my mother and asked him to give me all of the details he could.
The call came in to my mother’s local precinct, not 911. This is the norm for swatting calls — most local precincts don’t record calls, so there is no way to trace the “prank.” The caller, a male, said he had shot his girlfriend, barricaded himself in the house, was heavily armed, and his girlfriend’s daughter was in house with him, currently alive. He was planning to shoot any police who approached the house.
He gave my mother’s address, and he hung up.
The local precinct thought this was highly unusual — there had never been a domestic abuse call from that address before. They wondered whether it was a real call or a prank. But given the intensely violent nature of the call, and the potential hostage situation, the SWAT team was deployed.
Their armored vehicle arrived on my mother’s street at around ten at night and the SWAT team deployed, surrounding her house. My mother’s neighbors came out, some were confronted, and told to put their hands up in the air.
Still unsure if the call had been real or fake, the police called my mother’s house phone. My mother didn’t answer.
They decided to call one more time.
This time she answered. They asked if she was okay; she was.
If she hadn’t answered, they would have broken down the door, thrown my mother to the ground and violently searched the house.
But she answered her phone. And instead, she opened her door, and the SWAT team calmly searched her house, found nothing, and left.
It was a prank, they decided.
As the reporter recounted all of this to me, I was living my research in real time. I was well-versed in the mechanics of a prank like this, but that didn’t abate the anxiety attacks I was having.
* * *
I’m a user-experience designer and design researcher for a very large technology company. That means I interview people about specific problems with certain tech products they use, and then I design solutions. But my fascination with the way people interact with technology and with each other doesn’t end when I leave work. I spend a lot of my free time observing user trends online, and I write down my observations. This leads me to notice digital patterns, such as hashtags that will be trending when they haven’t yet, and interaction patterns like how people create cliques online in spaces that don’t support that kind of socializing, like Twitter.
This is how I first noticed Gamergate in August of 2014.
There had been a trend growing for a while, especially in the indie games scene, but spilling over into mainstream games and games journalism. The idea of the young, white, male “gamer” was dead; everyone plays games now. If your mom plays candy crush and solitaire, she’s a gamer. If you’re a fan of Kim Kardashian Hollywood, you’re a gamer. And women now outpace men in playing and consuming games.
This shift in gamer demographics didn’t sit well with some people. There was still this idea that games were and should be a specific thing, talked about in a specific way, reviewed in a specific fashion and played by specific people. Tensions were already high with this territorial sentiment popping up all over the Internet, and then game developer and designer Zoe Quinn’s ex posted a scathing, harassing rant online in which he made false allegations about her sex life, her game development, and their relationship. He painted her as a conniving, cheating girlfriend, and credited her supposed affair with a games journalist as the reason for the success of her game, Depression Quest. With this act of online harassment and the anti-woman conspiracy theory it contained, Gamergate was born.
The group of people involved with Gamergate think of themselves as activists, saving video games from feminists out to push a “feminist agenda,” also known as wanting more female characters that are clothed and have developed plot lines. They congregate online, mainly on social media board-based sites where users post to start conversations and debate, like Reddit and its less-famous and more-explicit cousins, 4chan and 8chan. They interact with each other and others on Twitter and Facebook using the hashtag #gamergate.
What started as a group of die-hard gamers commiserating about the changing landscape of their subculture turned into a band of trolls roving the Internet using harassment tactics such as “Swatting” (sending the SWAT team to someone’s home, like they did to my mom), “doxxing” (the release of someone’s private/personal documents such as a social security number, phone number or address), “dog piling” (people sending a lot of tweets to one singular person to overwhelm that person, often the tweets are of harassing nature, and “sea lioning” (someone asking another person over and over again for proof), mainly against women, people of color, and trans people who made games or spoke up about feminism or the gender problems in mainstream games.
Since most of my friends, real-life and online, are affiliated with the indie game scene in one way or another, I watched Gamergate unfold in real time.
Using the hashtag in a tweet became akin to saying “Bloody Mary” three times in a mirror, except Bloody Mary actually showed up and she brought a bunch of friends. People, particularly women in games, couldn’t talk about Gamergate publicly without getting harassed, so they just stopped talking about it on Twitter. Even tweeting about #feminism or #letwomenspeak brought about large bouts of Twitter harassment.
I, having not yet been directly attacked, decided to fly a little close to the sun. I retweeted anti-Gamergate tweets that featured the Gamergate hashtag, began watching and documenting nearly daily what Gamergate was up to.
Then some of my friends started to get harassed, not on the level of fleeing their homes like the game developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu or the games critic Anita Sarkeesian, but enough to go private on Twitter, and to become silent in general, especially on the topic of Gamergate. It was enough for people to contemplate leaving the industry, and a few women did.
I started tweeting using the hashtag #g00bergate instead of #gamergate—this way I could still voice my opinion, but my tweets wouldn’t be searchable through the Gamergate hashtag, and so I would be much less likely to be found and targeted. It worked. My tweets on the subject, such as “writing about g00bergate as a twitter UX design flaw,” received a few likes from my followers but no outside interaction from gamer gaters. I felt safe enough.
Despite my fundamental disagreements with Gamergate, I found them fascinating, particularly the way they communicate. They engage with strangers in a very specific way that’s different from the average social-media user; they treat Twitter as if it were a board-based platform like Reddit, 4chan or 8chan. In a board-based community, a user creates a board about a given topic. When you create that board, you’re the moderator. Reddit has specific rules (including new anti-harassment rules), but the moderator, for the most part, is in charge. This communication style differs from Twitter, because if a person posts on the board they expect a response, it’s an ongoing conversation. Twitter, on the other hand, is like sending text messages out into the ether and hoping someone sees it. Communication threads don’t last long, they disappear or get shortened, so unless someone really searches, it’s hard to see and contextualize a communication thread. And people tend to interact only with their friends and followers (except in the case of celebrity, where a higher percentage of interactions are with strangers). Gamergaters, however, use Twitter as if it was a board-based community, searching out tweets related to topics they care about and launching a thirty-person debate, which can look a lot more like an attack.
* * *
As I watched Gamergate gather more mass and momentum, I questioned not why it was happening, but how. As a user-experience designer, I was interested in how the system design of Twitter allowed for this. I wondered if there were ways to protect users while preserving the integrity of the conversation style Twitter had designed, or, if it was possibly to have both safety and a feeling of openness.
Twitter didn’t offer a way to stymy interaction with users other than to go private, it was either all interaction or none. They did allow users with public accounts to manually block individual, harassing users, but trolls easily got around this by creating new accounts. Their security was clearly insufficient.
Twitter recently enacted an algorithm for verified users to automatically weed out potentially harassing accounts, changed their platform rules to more harshly punish harassers, and allowed for shared block lists. This is all major progress, but the fight for safe, shared online space is far from over.
I decided to approach the problem as if Twitter had hired me as a user experience designer to fix its harassment problem, and see what I could come up with.
I looked at text-messaging, blocking people via email, spam filters for email, I played around with Periscope, Google+, Instagram, Kinja commenting system for Gawker Media, Metafilter, Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan to see how privacy settings and filtering played out on each of these platforms. I listened to moderated discussions and read scholarly papers about online harassment, online harassment law, the history of trolls, Anonymous, political uses of social media, and took notes on what I was seeing in my own social media spheres. I read about Twitter’s algorithms, and I even met with someone from Twitter to hear how they view their security.
I interviewed five journalists and media theorists. I asked three developers how they would affect change in Twitter and what steps they would take. I interviewed fifteen people who had been affected by Gamergate, large-scale harassment like doxxing, sustained digital stalking, daily rape and death threats and swatting attempts, to smaller blips like a handful of death and rape threats or regular harassing tweets along the lines of “go fuck yourself, you’re dumb.”
And I dug into other online harassment campaigns and I saw they were using the same tactics as Gamergate. This is where my research took a huge turn. These online harassment techniques had been around for a while, and had been used in these earlier hate campaigns—Gamergate wasn’t the first, they were just the biggest.
Operation Lollipop, for example, was a 4chan-initiated hate campaign started in 2013 that was designed to cause dissent in feminist circles, particularly between white feminists and feminists of color. The harassers created dummy accounts to impersonate women of color on Twitter and interact with activists and feminists. The real women caught up and started a campaign using the hashtag #yourslipisshowing to weed out these dummy accounts. Many received death threats, for trying to call out the trolling. #Freebleeding, another organized hate campaign designed to cause dissent and disrupt feminist activism, also came around at this time. Dummy accounts were created to use the recent #Transracial hashtag to argue with journalists. Essentially, if there is a way to troll and disrupt, especially during times of heated emotional discussion, then there will be trolling and targets.
In the spring of this year, my research was getting to a point where I needed to start designing. I came up with a few user-interface design interventions, just in time to put them to the test when I started being harassed myself.
In February, the public Twitter account of game critic and Gamergate-target Anita Sarkeesian retweeted me and I had to block over sixty accounts because of harassing tweets, people telling me to never procreate so I could keep my “stupidity” contained, calling me a dumb feminist bitch, and a handful of strangers just wanting to engage in a debate. It was overwhelming to have all of those interactions at once, from the innocuous “hi I just want to chat about X” to the “you’re a dumb bitch” over and over again. Erring on the side of caution, I blocked every account that was a stranger—if we didn’t have a friend in common, and I thought a tweet to me was antagonistic, I would immediately block.
I checked to see how many accounts would have made it through if I had been able to quickly enact the filtering system I’d created—none of them would have. If my system was in use on Twitter, I would have been sheltered from the harassing comments without having to block each account manually, or going private. My filtering systems would allow the user to seem public, but be able to select a variety of filters to be harder to reach. Right now my system is just an idea, but I’m in the process of developing a series of Google Chrome extensions that will make it available to Twitter users.
* * *
There are a lot of digital “truths” that have been instilled in our society about accessibility and findability, meaning we were taught, as users, that we needed to be trackable, we needed a visible footprint to exist in society, such as credit, a listed address, etc. Being trackable, and being “seen” meant safety. But online harassment has proven otherwise.
Unfortunately, when my research started to piss people off, this meant that my mother was also easy to find. The answer is not to stay quiet, go private, or hide online, or get offline because harassment, like bullying, will still occur. Being hidden may have the aura of safety but it does not solve the problem. The answer is to create policy, better filtering systems that users can choose to enact, and community guidelines to stymy harassment. The answer is to better inform police forces that swatting is a trend in pranks.
I generally tweet fairly innocuous things, like “I’m eating goldfish in bed BC it’s nearly the weekend and I give zero fucks.” I’m on Instagram, I have a Facebook. These are normal things to have in our digital society, and the answer to my safety is to not give them up. I want to have the ability to be funny and serious, but most of all, to be myself online. I should not have to give that up just to be safe. The solution is for social media sites and the police to take threats or jokes about swatting, doxxing, and organized crime seriously. Tweeting about buying a gun and shooting up a school would be taken seriously, and so should the threat of raping, doxxing, swatting or killing someone.
Privacy issues and online harassment are directly linked, and online harassment isn’t going anywhere. My fear is that, in reaction to online harassment, laws will be passed that will break down our civil freedoms and rights online, and that more surveillance will be sold to users under the guise of safety. More surveillance, however, would not have helped me or my mother. A platform that takes harassment and threats seriously instead of treating them like jokes would have.
* * *
Caroline Sinders is a researcher, interaction designer and artist. She tweets about mozzarella sticks, feminism, culture, and online harassment. Follow her on Twitter @carolinesinders.
Natalie Kassirer is a relatively young life-form and artist currently located in New York City. In her art, she is interested in exploring pop culture, human interaction, and nature’s relationship to humanity. She enjoys walking in the woods, loitering in coffee shops, cute robots, and good music. Follow her on Twitter @NatalieKassirer.