Boycotts and Blockades


How Not To Stump For Ethical Journalism

In principle, at least, a boycott involves declining a product until the company that produces it agrees to change some policy. The market logic of a boycott waged on that model is sound because the deprivation it imposes is proportional—the lost sales give the company a reliable sense of how many of its customers feel alienated by the offending policy.

An early #GamerGate tactic involved just that sort of boycott. Gamers who were offended by what they took to be the theme of the “Gamers Are Dead” articles swore off the sites that published them. Because ad revenue is typically calculated “per mille” (that is, the price of displaying an ad to 1,000 site visitors) or “per click” (which still ends up being a function of the site’s overall traffic), it’s reasonable to expect direct boycotts to have a roughly proportional effect on ad revenue. In other words, the publisher loses precisely as much revenue as they would have otherwise gotten from the readers they alienated.

By most standards, that’s a reasonable method of advocating for change, but #GamerGate wasn’t patient enough to see it through. Instead, they’ve adopted an indirect form of boycott. That method works by deluging other companies (typically retailers or manufacturers) with emails urging them to pull their ads from the offending sites. These letter-writing campaigns are so popular among #GamerGate supporters that some consider suggestions for other plans a fatal distraction from the revolt’s most effective tool.

An 8chan user replies to the suggestion that #GamerGate produce a press kit.

Technically, publishers remain the targets, but in practical terms, the threat of boycott is leveled at the advertiser. While that’s often defended as an example of the free market at work, it’s actually an abuse of the market. The letter-writers hope to exercise disproportionate influence, which is why the indirect strategy is popular among groups — like the Christian conservatives who arranged television boycotts during the late 1980s and early 90s — who recognize that their own numbers are probably too small for an effective direct boycott.

So while promises of boycott remain a central feature, the actual goal of the strategy is to create a situation more akin to blockade or embargo. It may be that most readers of the blockaded publication are happy with what they they read there, but by undermining advertising relationships, the blockade ensures that the continued patronage of satisfied readers counts for less that it would under normal circumstances. In effect, they make it harder for everyone else to “vote with their wallet,” a platitude #GamerGate voiced early on, but seems to have abandoned in the months since.

If the market justification is shaky, the ethical rationale is even worse. One of the goals most often claimed by #GamerGate supporters is the removal of the corrupting influence of payoffs. I have yet to find a supporter who can explain to me how the blockade strategy might achieve that. It tends to have precisely the opposite effect.

In the first place, the loss of a major advertiser is likely to send a publication scrambling to make up for the lost revenue until it can replace the partner or rework its budget to do without. The needs of paying the bills and compensating the staff may ultimately send them into the arms of vested interests willing to make up the difference in return for some favorable coverage. There’s nothing far-fetched about that scenario—video game publishers have often granted hands-on, pre-release access to games in exchange for coverage contractually obligated to omit any complaints the writer might otherwise have expressed.

Thus, a strong advertising portfolio not only keeps publishers out of bankruptcy— it also shores up their ability to turn down money that might compromise their impartiality. The blockade strategy actively works to undermine all that. It would be unsurprising to see a blockaded publisher turning to studio money just to stay solvent. It is, as such, one of this episode’s many grim ironies that, having begun over accusations of a quid pro quo between a developer and journalists, #GamerGate would then favor a strategy that actually encourages quid pro quo arrangements.

More to the point, as Caitlin Dewey recently noted at the Washington Post, the strategy establishes a dangerous precedent. Nearly any sufficiently motivated group could use that sort of blockade to punish just about any periodical for publishing an opinion they don’t like. The knowledge that a disgruntled minority could threaten the very existence of a venue by going after its advertisers is almost bound to dissuade some editors from running stories they have every right to publish.

Nor (as Deadspin’s Kyle Wagner has suggested) is there any particular reason that should be limited to the gaming press. Similar tactics could just as readily be brought to bear on, say, political speech or straightforward coverage of current events. Reputable publications usually protect against that sort of influence by erecting an operational wall between the departments that handle advertising and editorial. By design, the blockade strategy chips away at that wall.

More than any trumped-up concern for journalistic integrity, in fact, that appears to be the entire point. The first successful use of the blockade strategy was against Gamasutra, with many #GamerGate supporters citing Leigh Alexander’s “Gamers Are Over” editorial to justify the blockade. The message (which many didn’t even bother to leave implicit) was that an unwelcome opinion or disliked employee gave a minority of the site’s readers the right to override the financial support of every other patron. The publisher, in return, is expected to apologize for the article, taking to heart the lesson that it should only speak well of this powerful minority tugging at their purse strings.

Some have even attempted to defend the strategy by pointing to just that underdog status. Because #GamerGate is a small group compared to the totality of video game consumers, goes the rationale, asymmetrical tactics are necessary if they’re to achieve their goals. But asymmetry is not inherently virtuous, the underdogs are not always in the right, and when you follow the logic of the blockade strategy, it soon becomes clear that it doesn’t lead to the ethical goals they’ve claimed.