How Internet Trolls Became Terrorists
And helped to elect Donald Trump
In early July 2017, Eric Ciaramella quit his job on the National Security Council. Ciaramella was National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s assistant and, because of that position, online trolls made his life very hard.
Popular alt-right media personality Michael Cernovich published a hit piece about Ciarmella alleging, among other things, that he was a source of leaks at the highest level of U.S. president Donald Trump’s government. The torrent of abuse — both online and in real life — forced Ciaramella to leave his post early.
In the first week of June 2017, candidate Kim Weaver, a Democrat, dropped out of the race for Iowa’s 4th Congressional District. Weaver quit for many reasons. Harassment was one of them.
Weaver told The Des Moines Register that she’d received intimidating emails and phone calls. Someone even put a for sale sign up in her front yard. I tried to speak with Weaver about her experience, but she canceled at the last minute and told me the experience had overwhelmed her and she wanted to step out of the spotlight.
After Trump retweeted a GIF of him wrestling CNN to the ground, CNN reporter Andrew Kaczynski dug up the guy who made the image and got him to apologize. Kaczynski also uncovered the Redditor’s identity, but didn’t publish it.
The online troll army supporting the alt-right didn’t care, though. It published the personal information of the reporter, his parents and his wife. Cernovich, again, inserted himself into the fray and insinuated protestors would soon gather on Kaczynski’s lawn.
If all this seems like a brave new world of harassment, then you’re obviously not a gamer. People who play video games, especially women, for years have lived with the kinds of targeted abuse and harassment suffered by Weaver, Ciaramella and Kaczynski.
The methods these gamers use to strike out are becoming increasingly familiar to politicians and journalists.
Alt-right trolls often dox opponents and their families. “Doxxing” is when a person finds the personal information of an opponent — bank statements, address, phone number and even their social security number — and publishes it online in the hope of pressuring the opponent to disappear themselves.
Other methods are worse. Death threats, for one. Anonymous online hordes contact — with threatening phone calls, emails and packages — a target en masse, often using the information released via dox. Weaver and Ciaramella both suffered this kind of abuse.
The ultimate alt-right tactic is “swatting” — anonymously calling in a fake bomb threat on a target’s home or business to force an overreaction by police SWAT teams. The online hordes recently swatted Congresswoman Katherine Clark, a Massachusetts Democrat. Her crime? She’s tried to make swatting a federal offense.
These tactics are new to the mainstream media and politicians, but they’re all too familiar to video game fans. We’ve been dealing with this garbage for years, now.
In 2014, a reactionary political movement operating under the guise of consumer advocacy slithered out of the chat rooms and message boards popular among video game fans. They called it Gamergate and its followers screeched about ethics in video games journalism while targeting women developers, critics and journalists.
Popular alt-right agitators Milo Yiannopoulos and Cernovich sharpened their teeth and grew their audiences feeding Gamergate trolls. The FBI investigated the death threats and doxxing and did nothing.
Now, its tactics unchallenged, Gamergate has metastasized. The movement that once crooned about consumer protection has fully embraced its reactionary politics, merged with online white nationalist and men’s rights movements and gone to war against its alleged enemies.
This didn’t have to happen.
“At the height of Gamergate I had two calls with Obama’s White House,” Brianna Wu told Joshua Topolsky on the Tomorrow Podcast. “And we were very serious, and they told me they were going to get serious about prosecuting Gamergate. And they didn’t.” Wu is a video game developer and engineer. She’s also running for Congress in Massachusetts.
In 2014, the online horde targeted Wu and prominent female gamers for harassment. “I believe that if Obama had followed through on Gamergate and the prosecutions there,” Wu said. “I believe that this playbook for the alt-right would not have poisoned the entire election.”
“Had GamerGate not happened, we’d still be where we are right now, I suspect, plus or minus a few B-list personalities like Mike Cernovich,” Katherine Cross told me. “But GamerGate was a sign of a new form of far right organization online that was swirling into something larger and with more staying power than the usual garden variety harassment campaigns.”
Cross is an academic, freelance writer and a cultural critic. She was one of the first to identify Gamergater as a political force with ramifications beyond the world of video games. “The siege mentality of the gaming community — the long-running, marrow deep sense that someone is out to get us and take our games away — when combined with equally longstanding white male dominance of the community is a neat fit for white nationalist grievance politics.”
Which is exactly what happened.
To be clear, I don’t think there’s a direct causal link between violent video games and real-world violence. Nor do I think that sexist video games make sexist video-gamers. There are also a lot of problems with the video game press — problems Gamergater is right about.
Video games are not, inherently, violent and sexist. But some of the communities that thrive around video game culture are. Worse, those groups radicalized in the past few years, merged with white nationalist and men’s rights groups online and used violence and the threat of violence to silence critics and destabilize American democracy.
Anita Sarkeesian. Feminist Frequency capture
A legitimate terrorist threat
In the fall of 2014, someone began sending threatening emails to the staff of Utah State University. The anonymous wannabe terrorist said he was a member of the Gamergate movement and threatened to kill students if the school didn’t shut down a planned lecture by noted feminist cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian.
Sarkeesian is the host of a popular YouTube series called Feminist Frequency that — among other things — calls out misogynist tropes in video games. Ever notice that women are often trophies for men to rescue or collect in video games, or that women characters often wear lingerie as armor while their male counterparts wear full plate? Sarkeesian has and she wants to talk about it.
Gamergate didn’t want her to. “If you do not cancel [the event] a Montreal Massacre style attack will be carried out against the attendees, as well as students at staff at the nearby Women’s Center,” one of the emails read. “I have at my disposal a semi-automatic rifle, multiple pistols and a collection of pipe bombs. This will be the deadliest school shooting in American history and I’m giving you a chance to stop it.”
“You have 24 hours to cancel … you might be foolish enough to just beef up security at the event, but that won’t save you. Even if they’re able to stop me, there are plenty of feminists on campus who won’t be able to defend themselves. One way or another, I’m going to make sure they die.”
“[Sarkeesian] is everything wrong with the feminist woman, and she is going to die screaming like the craven little whore that she is if you let her come to USU. I will write my manifesto in her spilled blood … Feminists have ruined my life and I will have my revenge.”
Another threatening email claimed that terrorists associated with Gamergate had planted 9,000 bombs around the school and would use them to blow up the auditorium. “We of GamerGate, or Gamergators … are sick and tired of you stupid feminists ruining everything by saying it’s sexist … what better way to pacify you than by burning your faces off with high-ordnance explosives?”
Sarkeesian canceled the lecture. She felt the university had done a bad job of protecting her, that the security was inadequate and that both federal and local law enforcement had done a poor job of following up on what was obviously a legitimate terrorist threat.
A heavily redacted copy of the FBI’s case file on Gamergate corroborates Sarkeesian’s’ concerns. Whoever sent the email took great pains to mask their identity and, according the file, the Bureau was unable to identify them. Other incidents went unprosecuted, as well.
In September 2015, the FBI tracked down one of the Gamergate kids who had been threatening an unidentified female game developer. The gamergator was under 18. State police showed up on his door to ask him about the death threats and harassment he’d conducted online.
“He told me he probably called her at least 40 to 50 times with threats,” the interviewer said. “He told me he never made any bomb threats but doesn’t doubt that someone else in the [online group] could have done it.” The kid explained he’d made the calls from his parents phones, then apologized and promised to never do it again. No one filed any charges.
The investigation tracked down another gamergator, this one not a minor, and got him to admit he’d sent threatening emails involving a shotgun. The report about his interview ends with, “[redacted] understood that it was a federal crime to send a threatening communication to anyone and will never do it again.” Must be nice to get a slap on the wrist for a federal offense.
More frustrating than letting people making terrorist threats off with a warning is the incompetence the file displayed when describing why so many of the investigations went nowhere. It seems that the U.S. justice system hasn’t decided who has jurisdiction when digital threats cross state lines. In at least one case, the investigators had actionable evidence but couldn’t find anyone to take the case.
“[United State’s Attorney’s Office] in San Francisco declined prosecution due to lack of jurisdiction,” the file explained. “USAO Boston declined prosecution without giving any explanation … to date, all available investigative steps failed to identify subjects or actionable leads. San Francisco USAO indicated [it] will not be able to prosecute any threats against victims or subjects that are not located in … San Francisco.”
Unpunished, the anonymous online horde attacks women in the games industry to this day. But it’s also expanded their targets to include prominent mainstream journalists, politicians and government functionaries they don’t agree with.
The FBI has not responded to my request for comment on this story.
Why did this happen? What is it about video games that caused some guys to call women, sometimes more than 40 times a day, making death threats? What is it about this billion-dollar industry that made some of its fans embrace the threat of violence as a legitimate means of changing the world?
It was all thanks to a bad break-up. Seriously.
Gage Skidmore photo
Broken boys become ugly men
Video games are great. I don’t believe there’s anything, inherently, about video games that causes violence and pushes some of its audience to act like assholes. But the communities that surround video games have. The reasons are why are complicated and tied up with bizarre, nerd identity politics.
Kids like me got bullied a lot growing up. We liked comics, read too many books and knew strange foreign languages such as Klingon and Elvish. Instead of playing football, we played video games and spent untold hours in digital worlds, congregating, commiserating and telling each other it’d all be better once we grew up.
That was one of the most popular coping methods — holding onto hope that one day the power dynamics would shift and the bullies would all be wage slaves working in our factories. We knew we were smarter and, if we could just hang on, our future would be much brighter than the people who asserted dominance through violence. We were right.
Our world is the world made by and for nerds. Stories that got me beat up in middle school now dominate the culture. The Marvel universe has conquered the box office. Star Wars is a yearly cultural event. Video games are so popular that swaths of young men are choosing them over returning to work.
I was 13 when George R.R. Martin published the first Game of Thrones novel. I read it a few years later and, had you told teenage me that the T.V. show based on the novel would be one of the most popular television series of all time, I’d have called you a liar. The nerds are in charge and life, for some of us, is good. But we have not been gracious in victory.
Over the past few years, a reactionary political movement has entered the public consciousness. The new white nationalists are the alt-right — keyboard cowboys who grew up in internet chat rooms, playing video games and dreaming about a world where they weren’t marginalized. It’s like some of them haven’t gotten the memo about the nerds being in charge.
For some of us, the victim mentality of our youth became so ingrained that we couldn’t let it go when things got better. Some of us turtled into communities on 4chan, Reddit and assorted online video games and decided to look for new enemies. It was in these places that Gamergate, the men’s right movement and the alt-right started.
As a gamer, I’d like to tell you I’m surprised by this. I’d like to tell you that I’m horrified and shocked by the behavior of a subsection of my community. But the truth is, all the awful stuff the alt-right and the Gamergaters have done makes a terrible kind of sense. I should have seen it coming. I’ve been playing online video games for 30 years and the things I’ve heard in the text and voice chats of those places would curdle your blood.
For decades, I just assumed that the bravado, rape threats and casual misogyny and racism were just part of the internet. Besides, I thought, most of the guys playing Starcraft with me didn’t mean it when they threatened to throw me in the oven with the Jews. I assumed they were joking. I assumed they were just in it for the lulz.
I was wrong.
Milo Yiannopoulos. Photo via Wikipedia
A bad break-up
I first knew the video game community was sick during Gamergate. To help get a sense of where all this hate and toxicity is coming from, it’s important to understand how Gamergate started. For non-gamers, this is going to take some explanation and it’s going to sound so dumb. But stick with me, I promise it’s worth it and — what’s more — you’ll see some familiar names and tactics that years later dominated press coverage during the 2016 election.
In 2014, Eron Gjoni went through a bad breakup. His girlfriend was Zoë Quinn, an independent video-game developer and the two split for reasons I’m not going to rehash here. What goes on between two people isn’t anyone’s damn business but their own. Gjoni didn’t quite believe that though, and wrote a rambling 9,425-word blog post about the breakup.
Gamers across the internet read the post and internalized one thing above all — that Quinn had entered into a relationship with Gjoni and other games journalists solely to signal blast her own video game projects and get free press. Overnight, Quinn and Gjoni were at the center of a culture war.
To the online hordes, Gjoni’s post confirmed their long-held suspicions that games journalists often colluded with games companies. 4chan and other online gathering spots reposted Gjoni’s essay and the Gamergate movement was born.
Something about Quinn and Gjoni’s breakup made the male gaming community go nuts. Soon, a ravenous online horde of reactionary assholes were looking for any prominent woman in the video gaming community and making her life a living Hell.
It was as if Quinn became an avatar for every woman that ever turned down a gamer’s advances. The response from the male gaming community was not proportionate to the relationship drama. Gamergaters see themselves as victims turned warriors against a vast cultural conspiracy. White dudes have dominated the conversation about video games for so long that they see any attempt to change the space or the culture as an attack.
Again, a lot of us were bullied, dateless and isolated as kids. Most of us grew up, took our games with us, learned how to interact socially and moved on with our lives. A small, but violent and vocal group, didn’t. They internalized the victim narrative from adolescence and never grew up.
Cross told me part of the problem is that those male nerds bullied in their youth built up what she calls a “fictive ethnicity” around nerd culture. They suffered abuse in their youth and attributed most of that abuse to women.
“So much of the rhetoric and the guiding metaphors in this segment of nerd communities interprets everything through a high-school lens,” she said. “Feminist critics are cast as the popular, hot cheerleaders who are trying to stuff the nerd boys back into the locker.
“Again, this completely ignores the experience of nerd girls, but this fictive ethnicity only really has space for one narrow interpretation of nerd history. So any threat to this identity is perceived as existential, as a recurring terror that threatens to drag you from your safe community back into the void of high school bullying.”
She’s right, but we both agree that the games themselves aren’t the central problem. It’s the communities around them. “I think that the culture gamers build around games, agnostic to their content, is the bigger culprit,” she said. “It’s lawless, its norms tend to reward the loudest voices in the room, and it subsumes even the most hateful abuse under the idea that it’s all jokey ‘trash talk.'”
“Games still, broadly, encourage white men to see themselves as the heroes of every story who express their power through feats of strength and violence,” Cross told me. “Women and minorities have long had to accommodate ourselves to empathizing with and relating to male-centric stories, but we rarely ask white men to find themselves in characters of color or in women.”
Anyone who’s played games online in the past two decades knows what she’s talking about. The voice and text chat of any popular game such as League of Legends, Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto V is full of assholes spouting racism, misogyny and rape threats.
There’s a difference between hate speech and trash talk and the line is blurry, sure, but I’ve heard some truly horrific things from my peers playing video games.
Once, while playing Grand Theft Auto IV on the Xbox 360, I listened to a redneck use racial epithets to chase a black player out of the game. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been playing a game with a random woman online only to have the woman chased from the game because asshole dudes wouldn’t stop sexually harassing them.
Most of the time, I mute the voices. I don’t want to hear it. I turn away.
That makes me part of the problem, too.
“One of the things that consistently comes out in the literature is the importance of community,” Todd Helmus, a behavioral scientist for the Rand Corporation, told me. “People don’t radicalize by themselves.” Helmus studies online radicalization and noted that the growth and movement of America’s white-nationalist movement shared some frightening parallels with organizations such as the Islamic State.
“A key component is the need for someone to cheer you on and reinforce your opinion,” Helmus said. “Groups have enormous influences on individuals. When an individual is assigned to a group, they tend to act like that group. It’s a common phenomenon.”
So we have video game communities composed mostly of disaffected males. These are people who see themselves as victims in society — and who find comfort in solace in the video game community. In Quinn and others, that group found an enemy to help define itself. In Trump, it found a champion.
Helmus told me that high-profile ideologues help boost the signal of radical organization. “People who act to reverberate the message,” he said. He cited Islamic State as an example, pointing to prominent Western religious figures who helped spread the group’s message.
Gamergate is no different. Many of its public supporters are now alt-right media darlings.
Cernovich, the man who pointed the online horde at McMaster’s aide, inserted himself into the drama by offering free legal services to Quinn’s boyfriend Gjoni. Cernovich was a lawyer before he became an alt-right gadfly. He wanted to protect Gjoni’s First Amendment rights against a protection order Quinn had attempted to get through the U.S. legal system.
Alt-right firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos rocketed to fame and prominence using Gamergate. He used the movement to build his brand then drove his followers into Trump’s camp by the thousands during the 2016 election.
Steve Bannon. Photo via Wikipedia
Harnessing the trolls
At first, it may seem ridiculous that video game communities fostered a new white-nationalist movement and helped Trump. But the case is surprisingly easy to make. Trump’s online vanguard drew a lot of attention in the months after the election.
The hardcore followers congregate at the /r/The_Donald subsection of the popular website Reddit. It’s a community more than 400,000 strong. 4chan’s /pol/ section is harder to track, but just as influential.
That group calls Trump its “God Emperor” and helped elevate the man during the 2016 election. It organized users to search through the Democratic National Committee emails and spread the conspiracy theories surrounding those emails. It didn’t create Pizzagate, but it helped spread the story.
/r/The_Donald users also fought in “The Great Meme War” of 2016. Memes are the propaganda of the digital age and during this keyboard combat, users coordinated the creation of memes related to Clinton and Trump and spread them online. They made simple image macros, uploaded them to Facebook and Twitter and watched them spread.
To Trump’s online army, censorship and political correctness are sins. It attacks a target, waits for the pushback and then claims that pushback is tantamount to shitting on the First Amendment.
Reddit is one of the most popular sites on the internet and the overlap between users posting in /r/The_Donald and the various Gamergate related subreddits is striking. FiveThirtyEight did the math and found significant overlaps between the pro-Donald groups and various gaming, racist and men’s rights groups.
In September 2016, The Washington Post reported a noticeable uptick in violent rhetoric on 4chan, Reddit and the other places where Gamergaters and the alt-right gather. “Many hundreds of users display the swastika, while others choose alternative symbols associated with hate groups, such as the Celtic cross, the Iron cross and the insignia of the Nazi paramilitary group Schutzstaffel, also known as the S.S.,” the report explained.
“Many others explicitly declare their allegiance to neo-Nazi and white separatist movements in the text of their profiles by proclaiming ‘white pride,’ or explicitly identifying themselves as ‘white nationalists.’ Almost everyone in the alt-right network is an enthusiastic and vocal supporter of Trump, though the core group of extremists is more likely to mention their race, white nationalism and national socialism than any presidential candidate.”
As the alt-right radicalized it absorbed the Gamergate movement and adopted the tactics that group pioneered in 2014. Its members long claimed that its movement was about ethics in video games journalism, but with the ascension of Trump and the growth of the movement, that excuse has run its course.
Radicalization was the point. In 2007, Trump consigliere Steve Bannon recognized the power of video game fans as a potential political force when they destroyed one of his businesses. A decade ago, Bannon was running a World of Warcraft gold farm bankrolled by tens of millions in Wall Street capital.
The scheme was simple — Bannon’s crews would grind out gold in the fictional worlds of video games and sell the product to lazy gamers. It was a big business … until the gamers revolted.
World of Warcraft fans so hated Bannon’s business that they organized and destroyed it. His investors lost their cash, but Bannon learned an incredible lesson about the power of the video game community. “These guys, these rootless white males, had monster power,” Bannon told journalist Joshuan Green. “You can activate that army. They come in through Gamergate or whatever and then get turned onto politics and Trump.”
These online asshats were poisonous monsters when they were going after games journalists and women in the games industry. Many of us didn’t listen or dismissed them as basement dwellers. We were wrong. Gamergate was the forefront of a new, strange and dangerous fascist movement.
Cross told me she saw Gamergate as the moment when “fundamentals of troll culture — as expressed on sites like 4chan, where irony and offense for the sake of offense rule the day — merged with the nastier elements of the existing political right to produce a chameleon-like entity that acted collectively but took no collective responsibility, while also dismissing critics of its actions as humorless people who didn’t understand their irony.”
The use of humor, irony and the destabilization of the truth is important. For years, my friends and I dismissed assholes in video game chat rooms spouting hateful rhetoric as performance artists and comedians. They didn’t mean anything by it, we told ourselves, they were just trying to get a laugh or a reaction.
“It is an extremist movement built on destabilizing meanings, making people distrust their senses and doubt reality, and deny responsibility by pretending to be joking or just playing,” Cross said. “Gaming culture, which has long shielded its native abuses by cleaving to the idea that it’s all ‘just a game’ was an ideal seedbed for this classic fascist two-step.”
It’s a tactic we’ve seen Trump employ repeatedly both on the campaign trail and in his presidency. Aside from the violence, the nasty rhetoric and the death threats, this destruction of objective truth is the biggest threat Gamergate and the alt-right represent — they make us doubt our senses and our sensibilities.
Which is why we have to fight. I love video games and, for years, I’ve muted or ignored the vile communities festering there. Most of the people, and I believe most of the men, playing video games aren’t racist, sexist or mean. But for too long, gamers have allowed the worst of us to represent the entire community. For too long, we’ve muted the racists instead of challenging their ideas. For too long, we turned the other way when someone creeped on women on the Counter-Strike server.
We can’t afford to do that anymore. We had the opportunity to shut these bastards down for decades and we didn’t and now they’ve spread from the chat rooms, message boards and online shooters into the real world. They’ve shut down public speeches, tortured journalists and run politicians out of public life.
Fans of video games watched the birth of a new fascist movement and we didn’t even realize it. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we have to do our part to stop it. When you’re playing a game and someone’s acting like an ass, let them know. If someone threatens to gas the Jews or rape a female player, report them. If you’re brave enough, engage with them and try to dismantle their ideas.
If we don’t fight them online, and now, we may have to fight them in the streets.