Harassment Through Impersonation: The Creation of a Cyber Mob

December 10, 2015

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.

fake iwata tweets -- 071205

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.

iwata-clarification-tweets

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:

071215 - @srhbutts - iwata fake tweets - 4chan1

071215 - @srhbutts - iwata fake tweets - 4chan2

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.

071215 - @TheBrotagonist 071215 - @TheFlamicon 071215 - @trelaw98 071215 - @TwitchingFool0 071215 - @yosonimbord

071815 - @SadisticTaiga - impersonation - fake iwata071215 - Google Chrome 81 071215 - Google Chrome 83 071215 - Google Chrome 85 071215 - Google Chrome 87 071215 - Google Chrome 88 071215 - Iwata's Legacy on Twitter- %22*checks messages* *sees this* *wants a Charlie Hebdoe at the @femfreq office. http---t.co-8W0ygPiID3%22 071215 - The Ronin on Twitter- %22Fuck you Sarkeesian. I'll piss on your ashes and flush it down the toilet when u die #feminismisahatemovement http---t.co-FMSu1fMbuQ%22 071315 - @420bleachitfags 071315 - @Federtyp 071315 - @GeneralisimoZod 071315 - @GGHOODRAT2015 2 071315 - @kuledude28_jack 071315 - @RedColoredSnow  071315 - @RobaFett64  071315 - @uuinb 071315 - @WaddyNL  071315 - @YoursTruly_Kit 2  071815 - @average_potato_ 071815 - @HayabusaIRL 071815 - @Jamberite 071915 - @yodamaster1212 1 071915 - @yodamaster1212

071215 - @BrentJCCherry 071215 - @DeadwingDuck 071215 - @Dailyhelios 071215 - @CopplerJacob 071215 - @Brutjedbear 071215 - @solitonmedic 071215 - @sanic_hegehag 071215 - @SanduskyDaClown 071215 - @Maiyannah 071215 - @rile_elam 071215 - @PSNBradyAlucard 071215 - @kykdryldrm   071215 - @KingofLomarre  071215 - @nachothebird428 071215 - @KingAle64 071215 - @iMattster1 071215 - @GoldPunkin 071215 - @Goforit12345 071215 - @GerrytheDank 071215 - @Freedomtimmy 071215 - @Fidozip 071215 - @dick2mouth071315 - @RichardHusky

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