HOW TO COVER DECENTRALIZED ONLINE MOVEMENTS

A Handy Guide for Journalists


After an incredibly productive conversation during the morning panel at this year’s SPJ’s Air Play conference, journalists and gamers alike were looking forward to the afternoon session. In this session, strategies would be discussed on how mainstream journalists could cover online-only decentralized movements like GamerGate. For this afternoon panel, ideal GamerGate speakers would have included the likes of Nick Flor (a professor of media at the University of New Mexico), William Usher (a gaming journalist who leaked the GameJournos Pro list and has consistently covered GamerGate), or even Sargon of Akkad (a popular youtuber who has been a powerful voice in GamerGate). All of these individuals were highly ranked in the official Kotaku in Action poll, and some even agreed to attend Air Play. However, the GamerGate panelists chosen for this session included Cathy Young (who did give a fairly good showing, thanks for your representation if you’re reading this, Cathy!), Milo Yannopolous, and Christina (Based Mom) Hoff Somers. It is these two last figures who, in my assessment of Air Play, dropped the ball.

I should note that I love both Milo and Based Mom to no end, and that with very few exceptions I love Milo’s writing and Based Mom’s videos. If Air Play had been a discussion about feminism in gaming, or if Air Play had been an Oxford Debate with Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu, and Arthur “It Ends Tonight” Chu on the other side, there is no one I would have rather had than Milo and Based Mom. However, from early on in the planning stages it became clear that Air Play was not to be an Oxford debate nor a discussion about feminism, and by the time Lynn Walsh was selected I was already aware that Milo and Based Mom would not be the best speakers. Nevertheless, The GamerGate Committee decided to go forward with Milo and Based Mom, and the results were less than stellar.

After some discussion focusing on gender and feminism and The Dreaded Feminist Incursion into Gaming, Koretzky tried to salvage the panel and focus on journalism and how to cover GamerGate. Once the conversation began actually addressing the issue of “how to cover online movements” (again, thank you Cathy Young!) the bomb threat was announced and the convention space was evacuated. The question of how to cover online decentralized movements was never answered.

In the spirit of finishing up what was started at Air Play, I have created a handy guide of steps for journalists to take when they want to cover movements like these. Although it will reference GamerGate heavily as it is the most recent of these events, this is not a GamerGate piece. This is a guide on how to cover decentralized online movements and applies to GamerGate just as well as the recent online SocJus shaming culture movement we see on Twitter and Tumbler as well as other decentralized activist online movements. I hope you find it useful.

Step 1: The Library Research

The first thing you will want to do when you stumble unto a decentralized online movement is read what others have written about said movements. What others have written may be true or untrue. It may be that what others have written was created with a specific political agenda in mind and the article is written with the intent to craft a narrative. To find these articles you can rely on your chosen search engine, but make sure you read well beyond the first page. If you get 10,000 pages worth of hits it’s impossible for you to read everything, but at least read every article published in an established publication — whether that is MSNBC or Fox, The Guardian or Breitbart — as well as some of the articles posted in smaller publications and individual blogs. In the case of GamerGate, you will want to read the piece from Erik Kain at Forbes, Stephen Totilo’s Kotaku piece, Milo’s piece at Breitbart, Nick Wingfield’s New York Times piece, and even Chris Grant’s rants on Polygon. You will notice that all these pieces are drastically different. Some say that GamerGate is an anti-feminist movement, while others say it’s gamers for ethics. This kind of discrepancy of narratives will happen regardless of what movement you are covering, and if you are an opinion writer or pundit who wants to push an agenda, at this point you choose the articles you agree with, write something that pushes your specific agenda, and call it a day. However, if you want to do actual journalism, you need to move on to the second step.

Step 2: Find and Participate in The Community

Every online movement, no matter how decentralized, has one or more “hubs” where individuals gather to discuss things related to said movement. It may be that these hubs might be easy to find, as is the case with GamerGate, or harder to find, as is the case with more serious online activism. As a journalist, it is your job to find where these hubs are and find them, and it may be that you need to go to places like 4Chan or 8Chan, or perhaps even other more obscure corners of the web. In the case of GamerGate, there are a few “hubs”.

The most active and numerous GamerGate hub is Kotaku in Action, the GamerGate subreddit. Other GamerGate hubs include the Twitter #GamerGate, the Voat GamerGate boards, and the 8Chan GamerGateHQ and GGRevolt boards. I haven’t linked to them to give you a bit of work to do if you choose to cover GamerGate, but knowing the names they are easy to find.

Once you find these spaces, look at them objectively. See what they discuss. See what they post. See how they communicate. Learn their use of internet memes. Learn when they use sarcasm and satire. Get to know the object of your investigation. This will not be easy and will more likely take up a lot of your time, but if you want to cover a decentralized online movement you need to become immersed in it.

If you did your job and you visited the GamerGate hubs I mentioned above, you will have noticed that in Kotaku In Action and the Voat boards most of the posts revolve around, in no particular order, 1) media ethics, 2) collusion / corruption / censorship in games and games media, 3) the gaming industry, 4) GamerGate drama, 5) politics in games (including Social Justice in Games), and in the last spot (and often heavily downvoated) general discussions about the SocJus cliques. You have probably also noticed that much of the discussion in GamerGateHQ on 8Chan focuses on the development of “Ops”, discussions about how to contact advertisers, how to reach out to developers, and how to remove the influence of collusion and unethical practices from gaming journalism. You will have also noticed far more shitposting (if you have done your homework you know what “shitposting” is) on the 8Chan boards than in Kotaku In Action. If you also visited GGRevolt, you will have noticed a higher number of shitposting than in Kotaku In Action and GamerGateHQ and a small number of discussions about Ops, most likely stuff like the creation of SocJus developer blacklists. You will have also probably noticed, if you did your homework as a journalist, that Kotaku In Action and GGRevolt don’t often get along.
This last observation is an important one.

In any online movement, if there is more than one hub, it is because there is more than one perspective within the movement and each of these hubs has its own agenda and pushes for its own approach. If you want to see which of the many hubs is “the main one”, all you need to do is look at user numbers. In the case of GamerGate, this would be Kotaku In Action, which boasts almost 50,000 users — by far a larger number than the modest 1,000 or so frequent visitors of GamerGateHQ (numbers might be outdated) or the even lower number of frequent readers of GGRevolt. That being said, if you want to do your job in its entirety, you want to understand several of the major hubs of your chosen online movement.

You will have noticed that I did not mention Twitter’s #GamerGate in my discussion of how each of the GamerGate hubs works. “The Hashtag” is unquestionably one of the major points of discussion for GamerGate. However, if you are interested in learning more about The Hashtag, feel free to go on twitter and scroll through the posts. Whenever you are covering a Twitter hashtag, make sure to scroll through at least a few months’ worth of posts and find the most retweeted voices. It is time consuming, but it is doable.

Step 3: Find the Big Names

Once you have learned how the movement and each of its hubs works, you want to find some of the more outspoken or well respected voices within each hub, and perhaps within the movement as a whole. If you did your homework, you will have found that beyond the mods, all the participants on the GamerGate chan boards are anonymous. You will have also noticed that in Kotaku In Action there are mods and users who are well respected by the community. In Reddit, you can figure out who they are by reading the threads and by looking at their Karma. You will have noticed that the mods I Am Supernova and Logan Mac have been well regarded by the community. You will have also noticed that users TheOne899, Netscape9, BasediCloud, Buzz Killington, Meowjestic, and myself (among others) are active in commenting or posting and have posts that have made it to the Reddit front page more than once. You will have also noticed that on The Hashtag people like Scrumpmonkey, Nick Flor, Sargon of Akkad, and Shoe0nHead are incredibly active. You will have also noticed that despite the movement having no leaders, there are some individuals who are more prominent and well respected than others. If you looked at GamerGate, you found that Sargon of Akkad, Oliver Campbell, Milo, Based Mom, and William Usher are respected by almost all, if not all, of the GamerGate hubs.

Step 4: Talk to the Community

Once you have identified the “big names”, talk to the community. Get their input. Listen to their concerns. Don’t focus on the prominent figures yet. Focus on the community itself. Identify yourself and say that you want to listen to them and their concerns, then engage in conversation.
If you are scared that conversation may take a wrong turn, you can use a specific Q&A approach, as Brad Glasgow did when he interviewed Kotaku In Action. In his interview, he set up questions and took the top voted answers as the position of the community. This is actually an ideal format as it helps the community’s most liked answers rise to the top.

Step 5: Talk to The Big Names

After you have spoken with the community, THEN you can talk to the big names. You want to leave the individuals with the more popular profile for last because that way you will be able to know where the community stands in respect to the big names. If you interview the big names first, you may go into your community interview with a bit of a biased perspective (but your representative said…) and you don’t want that. You need to remember that you are not investigating a structured movement, you are investigating a leaderless legion where, as we saw in GamerGate with King of Pol, big names come and go, but only ideas remain.

When you interview the more prominent names, you can ask them about their position in relation to the top voted answers of your interview from step 4. You want to do it this way and not the other way around because even though in a leaderless movement some voices might grow to have more prominence than others, these prominent voices are still not the leaders of the movement. In the case of GamerGate, for example, King of Pol and Sargon have both made suggestions on how to approach a certain issue, and they have often been metaphorically shouted down by The Hubs.

Step 6: Think about what you learned, and write what you found

This is probably the most important step. When you write your article, write what you found, not your interpretation of what you found or what you wish you would have found or what it all means. Remember that your job as a journalist (and I mean a real journalist, not a 21st century digital opinion blogger-pundalist) is to report what you find, not just what you wish were true.

If you did all these steps, you will discover that GamerGate is a movement whose main concerns are to have fun shitposting while taking down corrupt journalism, cronyism in gaming, and collusion in the games media, and who stand for an artist’s right to do whatever they want and a critic to say whatever they wish as long as disclosure is made (thank you, Leigh Alexander, for disclosing that Offworld is a site where you only cover people you like). You will find that yes, within GamerGate there is a small number of asshats who try to dox, but you will also find that they are shouted down and denounced by the majority of the community, and you will find that it is only when an outsider demands that “GamerGate denounce harassment” that they get defensive.

There you have it. A handy guide for investigating and reporting on online movements. Hope you found it useful. Now go out there and do some real journalism!

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