At last year’s XOXO festival, I spoke about two insidious ways that online harassment manifests: conspiracy theories and impersonation. I’d like to share an especially pernicious example of the latter, which demonstrates how harassers can make use of malicious impersonation to deliberately incite a vicious cybermob.
On July 12, I made a few tweets criticizing the representations of women in Batman: Arkham Knight. Now, it’s pretty standard for any tweets I make on this topic to be met with plenty of angry responses, but in this case, the influx of replies was particularly vitriolic, and included demands that I stop criticizing the game. In fact, the tweets vehemently insisted that this was an inappropriate time to be criticizing video games at all.
I saw these angry tweets before I read the news that beloved Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata had tragically passed away.
Shortly thereafter, my Twitter feed became flooded with misogynist harassment, hate, and threats. For some reason, most of this abuse mentioned Mr. Iwata. This was strange to me, since I’d never mentioned Mr. Iwata in any of my work about video games, and my only comment on his passing was a retweet of a heartfelt GIF bidding him farewell, using images from The Wind Waker.
In the process of investigating what specifically had triggered this flood of harassment, I found images circulating on Twitter and Tumblr of two fake, inflammatory tweets that I had never written.
The Photoshopped tweets should have been too ridiculous for anyone to believe. The coldness they displayed in response to Iwata’s death was so clearly designed specifically to make people angry, and the statements were sheer nonsense. (Also, the second tweet is actually 141 characters long.) But after an hour, the torrent of abuse only seemed to be escalating, so I decided to clarify that these were in fact obvious fakes.
My clarification did not stop the flow of harassment.
Why? Because many of those spreading the fakes knew they weren’t real. They just didn’t care, because their goal was simply to discredit me and to generate so much animosity against me that I would stop speaking critically about video games.
A Twitter user who tracks GamerGate found the origin of the attack on 4chan and shared proof that the harassers knew they were spreading misinformation. They were the ones doing exactly what many of the harassers they spurred on accused me of doing: callously using a man’s tragic death as an opportunity.
They seized it and turned it into a weapon to use against me.
Some harassers knew, others were tricked, but the end result was a cybermob of hate that lasted most of the week.
The intense harassment and threats continued pouring in, along with accusations that I had simply deleted the tweets from my account.
Posts on 4chan encouraged the spreading of these fake tweets through anonymous posts like:
Impersonation quotes are created in an attempt to discredit and destroy their target. Perpetrators manufacture absurd and offensive statements which they believe are actual representations of the target’s beliefs, so in my case, they created quotes reflecting their view of who I am and what I might say about an event like this, which is not actually rooted in reality. These fake tweets exploiting the death of a beloved figure in the gaming industry were created intentionally to spread misinformation and incite others to attack me.
This cybermob grew both through the participation of individuals who knew the statements were fake but were willing to use them as an excuse to harass me, as well as those who had been duped into believing that I would say something so horrible because it’s consistent with their perception of me as a monster with nefarious plans to destroy all video games.
What follows is a small sample of that mob:
Content warning for misogyny, gendered insults, victim blaming, violence and harassment.