UVa Redux: Brianna Wu’s “GamerGate” Story Falls Apart

paraphrasing Brianna Wu’s assertions regarding GamerGate, on ABC Nightline

The story of Brianna Wu, who has been known to refer to herself as a “noted feminist” and who claims to have been chased from her home by the online movement known as “GamerGate”, continues to degrade as it is retold again and again… each version departing substantially from the last.

“THE EIGHT DEADLY TWEETS”

On the 12th of October 2014, Huffington Post ran a story in which Wu had purportedly fled her home over the preceding weekend, in response to eight exceptionally nasty and graphic messages on Twitter. The tweets, all from a single anonymous account, contained death threats, rape threats, Wu’s home address, and a passing reference to “a game nobody liked.”

Wu’s company had released exactly one game by that point, on July 22nd. On that day, in an interview about the game’s launch, Wu asserted that she had already received so many death and rape threats that she had lost count. Her personal information had already been leaked to the Internet. She had already been afraid to go out to her car alone since January 2nd.

The “GamerGate” controversy did not yet exist, but all of the factors necessary for someone to send the eight deadly tweets already did.

Nonetheless, Wu asserted an absolute view that the hashtag-based GamerGate movement were directly responsible. “Remember,” Wu appended to a screenshot of the eight deadly tweets, “#gamergate isn’t about attacking women.” Her explanation for this belief stemmed from a spat she had already had with the group, wherein she tweeted “six shots” to the #GamerGate Twitter hashtag, mocking the movement, and subsequently received “thousands” of replies in kind. Then, she says:

“I was literally watching 8chan go after me in their specific chatroom for Gamergate… they posted my address, and within moments I got that death threat.”

Wu’s story thus relies on this chain of events as her evidence that the group was plotting her demise.

Bringing us to the first and most evident problem: how would Wu even know GamerGate had a chatroom on 8chan, and how is it she came to be there just as she was being “doxed”? Weeks would pass before she would give any sort of explanation, and when she did it only made the story more confusing. Nor did she clarify the point the following day, when MSNBC’s Reid Report interviewed her. Instead, Wu muddied the waters even further:

“8chan, which is an extremist group of people that were actually banned from 4chan, as controversial as 4chan is, uh, these are the people too controversial for 4chan, uh, its a board completely started for #GamerGate, and these people, um, had flooded this meme with thousands of, um, you know, altered memes, kind of attacking me.”

As demonstrated by 8chan’s domain registration records, the site started up in October of 2013. By the time GamerGate came into existence, the site already had numerous forums dedicated to interests as diverse as Christianity and fans of anthropomorphic animals (also known as “furries”). 8chan operates on the premise that anyone can go there and just start up a new forum about anything without any special sanction or permission, provided they do nothing illegal. Sometime after August of 2014, GamerGate started their own forum there.

Regardless, according to the Re/Code reporter who purportedly vetted Wu’s story for MSNBC, Eric Johnson, the memes were just jokes:

“Brianna posted a meme sort of making fun of #GamerGate. Um, she had tweeted some things sort of, um, exposing some of the, the problems with the internal logic of #GamerGate. And, uh, someone made an online meme out of it, where its a funny picture with text over it sort of like a LOLCat. She posted that and as sort of quote unquote ‘retaliation’ for just sharing a meme, uh, someone made death threats against her.”

The actual memes Wu got back from GamerGate had repurposed the same image she had sent them, changing the text for the various responses. While many were insulting, so were those she sent them, which Johnson categorized as harmless fun.

These are the worst examples of GamerGate harassment Brianna Wu has presented on her Twitter account.

Not to mention that Wu was, now, also confusing 8chan as the source of GamerGate’s responding memes. Previously she had told Kotaku and HuffPo that 8chan’s involvement in all of this had only extended to the doxing issue. This does make sense, however, when bearing in mind that Wu believed GamerGate created 8chan to begin with.

Perhaps most important, though, is the question no one seems to have thought to ask:

WHY BOTHER DOXING BRIANNA WU?

  1. Wu’s business is also her home, a matter of public record. There’s no point in doxing when the same information is a Google search away.
  2. Beyond the address, nothing else is given out in the doxing but phone number and email. No details which would help a real-world stalker, any more than Wu’s publicly-available information might.
  3. Despite the lack of extra info, the tweeter knew other personal information which did not appear in the dox, such as the name of Wu’s husband, Frank. At the same time, they guess at whether or not the two have any children (and then proceed to threaten the theoretical kids as well). One might find out about Frank via Google, but there’d be nothing about children.

Whomever sent the dox, actually sent nothing of use to anyone — whether you want to believe that person was with GamerGate, some pre-existing troll dumping the blame on an easy mark, or even Wu herself, looking to make the papers as some have theorized. It might just have been some twelve-year-old in his mother’s basement, giggling at all the commotion a few tweets were about to cause.

The story isn’t holding up well at this point, both shaky and uncorroborated. The only source, other than Brianna Wu’s word of honor, was Captain Richard Flynn of the Arlington, Massachusetts police department, who merely affirmed that a police report had been filed and the matter placed under investigation. And yet, the entire story was taken by the press at face value — exactly as had happened with “Jackie”, the woman who was eventually outed for falsely claiming to have been gang-raped at a University of Virginia frat party.

Were we to be charitable, we might conclude that Wu was so upset and panicky after receiving the “eight deadly tweets”, that she mistakenly attributed them to a group which she already believed was responsible for the harassment of women in the video games industry.

Unfortunately, we can’t be charitable, because Wu didn’t leave her story at that. Instead, she tripped over it during her next interview.

POLICE SQUAD! (NOW IN COLOR)

I’d like to move on to the next part of the story, but first there’s a major snag to deal with right here: Wu now has several different stories as to what the police did, once she filed her report.

In her original interview with Kotaku, made right after allegedly fleeing her home with husband Frank, she said the police had “offered to send patrol cars by her home”. In a recent SyFy episode for the channel’s new series “The Internet Ruined My Life”, Wu’s recollection of events is dramatically upgraded, with armed police performing a SWAT-style room-to-room sweep for possible assassins. However, she then suggests the police didn’t really care at all, adopting a disappointed look and tone before saying they told her to “simply stay off my electronic devices”.

Yet just days after her MSNBC interview, and in the months that followed, Wu had claimed active support from federal, state, and local police:

“At this point the FBI is involved. My local police department is involved, the Massachusetts cybercrime division is involved.”
“I have a very high profile case. There’s so much media attention. I have the ear of the police. They have every reason to want to solve this crime, but at the same time nothing has happened, even giving them as much as information as I have.”

No record of these involvements seems to exist beyond the initial police report. As 2015 meandered along and no one from GamerGate was arrested for anything despite the supposedly clear-as-day connections, Wu began claiming law enforcement agencies didn’t really care about online harassment of women. She even alleged that Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien was ignoring recorded death threats she had sent him.

O’Brien chose to differ: Wu had never contacted his office, nor sent anything to investigate. Instead, her online accusations resulted in wasted police resources, as hordes of supporters jammed the lines to find out why no one was in jail yet.

“Brianna Wu has had no contact with anyone in this office or the cyber stalking unit of the city prosecutors office. Brianna Wu has not provided any evidence to this office, including any tapes of phone calls allegedly received… the local FBI office has referred nothing to this office regarding Wu nor contacted us indicating they intend to do so… she has never had contact of any kind or nature with this office. As a result, this office received a number of emails and phone calls that wasted time and resources to respond to concerned persons who apparently observed these postings.”

Wu immediately put it all down to a “miscommunication”, blaming an unnamed staffer in her office and saying she looked forward to the results of the investigation… which also appears to have been fruitless. To top it off, Wu complained, the FBI was rejecting out of hand the evidence she was sending them. Eventually Wu convinced her local Congresswoman, Katherine Clark, to demand the FBI investigate GamerGate.

The FBI’s response was that they don’t pursue hoaxes.

At this time, there is simply nothing to indicate the police have considered Brianna Wu to be under any significant threat, regardless of how she feels to the contrary.

PAKMAN FEVER

This is the point where the Brianna Wu story goes from just shaky, to requiring time travel. It’s at this point, in an interview with David Pakman, that Wu finally tells us how she found out she was being doxed on 8chan.

She had, you see, gotten into that meme-war with GamerGate, where she was completely and constantly engaged for “hours and hours and hours”, after which she just turned it all off and was so frazzled she had to take a 24-hour break…

…uh, whoops.

On MSNBC two weeks prior, she’d said:

“I posted this meme, uh, it was just six shots, it was a simple tweet, i didn’t think anything about it, and later that evening i tuned uh, turned back on my twitter, and [saw thousands of responses]…”

None of that matches Wu’s story on Pakman. No going away from the computer, no “later that evening”, no sudden surprise deluge, because this whole time there’s been an alternate-universe Brianna Wu dealing with it nonstop. Her nonchalant Reid Report attitude is completely gone, replaced by an air of caged desperation as though re-living those hideous moments… which may not even have happened.

It seems Wu may have belatedly realized that all of these tweets and 8chan posts so critical to her story carried independent time-stamps. The Meme-storm had been on October 9th, with the Doxing and Eight Deadly Tweets taking place on the 10th. She could hardly claim to be informed of the doxing the day before it happened!

But on MSNBC, she’d done just that. All the key events had taken place on the same day, suggesting a seamless (and thus more believable) connection. Instead of a few hours, the break she’d mentioned had to be stretched to a full day, her mental state shifting in an apparent bit to suit the new testimony.

We are now finally informed that Brianna Wu discovered she was being doxed on 8chan from “a friend”, which does address the question of “how did she know where and when to go?”, at the cost of the rest of her story. Whether she herself believes it or not, it’s manufactured.

It’s also not the version vetted by Eric Johnson, the Re/Code reporter. Johnson’s confident assertion that the death threats were “sort of quote unquote ‘retaliation’ for just sharing a meme” now leaves him hanging as a victim of trust. All of this is a matter of fine detail and, as Johnson may not have wanted to be in the position of “questioning the victim” (the rationale used by Rolling Stone for not questioning “Jackie”), he put his faith in someone who was prepared to bald-facedly lie on national television.

I could get into quite a bit more of Wu’s performance on Pakman — particularly her leap to the claim of “hit piece” as soon as the host began questioning her story in any way — but I’m trying to keep this as concise as possible.

How could anyone not trust that look?

Which brings us to SyFy’s “The Internet Ruined My Life”, wherein the entire narrative collapses under its own weight.

For one, Wu now acts like she received no abuse at all prior to the Eight Deadly Tweets. It was these, she said, which first sparked fear in her and led her to start taking avoidance measures such as leaving her house to sleep at a friends’ house.

“I was living my life to where, depending on how many threats I got that day, it would determine where I would sleep that night.”

But seven months before the existence of GamerGate, according to Brianna Wu’s previous interviews, she’d already been so frightened by the same kind of threats that she hadn’t been able to go out to her car alone.

All of that? Wiped from history. Inconvenient to the telling of a riveting tale of terror.

Not satisfied with merely rewriting history, out of the blue comes something no one could possibly take seriously: a video of some guy in a skull mask with his eyes digitally smeared out, talking about a High Priest who says Wu has to die.

I’m laughing right now at the sheer ridiculousness… gamers have a High Priest?! Where’s the church, and are the pews set up with XBox controllers? Do they take old Atari cartridges as offerings to the Gods of the High Score?!

Who WRITES this stuff?!

Oh, but it gets better. The Verge, an outfit which has otherwise been solidly supportive of Wu, ended up admitting that a “death racer” who had “targeted” Wu in late 2014— and whom Wu took as a completely serious threat — was in fact a setup by performance comedian Jan Rankowski.

Because Wu herself was utterly committed to the idea that Rankowski and his accomplices were a real threat, those members of the press already backing Wu’s plays to this point continued to do so with the same lack of fact-checking, authoritatively declaring the satirical figures to be authentic members of GamerGate. Even when it was all over, the revelation became just another reason to rally around Wu as a victim, with no acknowledgement of fault… only annoyance at having been tricked.

But the main reason this particular incident is of import to this essay, is because the SyFy documentary referenced above continues to treat the whole thing as entirely real. The skull-mask guy is one of the spoofs Wu fell for. These are the actual “death racers”. And despite her acting to the contrary in the supposed documentary, according to The Verge she understands completely that it was all a hoax:

“This has had an extreme level of emotional stress for me, my husband, and my team,” says Wu in an interview with The Verge. “That’s not a joke. That is destroying my ability to do my job.” Among other things, the videos advance Gamergate’s longtime accusations that women fake online harassment.

Yes, they do. But not nearly so much, as it turns out, as Brianna Wu herself does.

WHY WOULD ANYONE DO THAT?

Well, one common thread with Brianna Wu is that she routinely uses her time in the spotlight to promote her studio and projects, even suggesting that helping to promote her will contribute to fighting off hordes of hateful gamers. And she gets a lot of spotlight, both in the press and the gaming industry at large, all due to her victim status relative to GamerGate.

If you look at Wu’s Wikipedia page, it’s overwhelmingly about the abuse she’s allegedly suffered as a woman in the games industry. The remainder would account for perhaps two paragraphs or so. Without this “perpetual victim” status, Brianna Wu would simply not have much of a career.

Besides speaking-engagement fees — yes, she gets them — she does quite well doing nothing at all: over $2,000/month in donations (as of this posting), all from supportive people who just want to do right in the world by fighting against sexism in the video game industry.

As a final note, it’s of interest to point out when it was that Wu chose to become a (quite literally) professional victim… just three days after culture critic Anita Sarkeesian told a rapt audience full of games-industry critics and game designers:

“One of the most radical things you can do is to actually believe women when they talk about their experiences.”

It seems they took her advice seriously. And so did Brianna Wu.

Like what you read? Give Scott Malcomson a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.