Gaters gonna gate: by this point, #gategate is our real controversy

Thinking of using the suffix “-gate” to really get your point across? Please don’t, Matthew Weddig will get angry.

#gategate. Photo: Peter Castleton via Flickr CC

Watergate. You’ve probably heard of that one, right? How about Nipplegate? Or Bingate? #gamergate? Now how about #bendgate? If I said “Lattegate”, would you think I was making it up?

#gategate, the increasing trend of adding “-gate” to the end of a word when referring to a perceived controversy, regardless of how meaningless, is the real problem here.

“-gate” is the new “5 Things You Never Knew…” or “You Won’t Believe…”, but unlike those overused and annoying trends, #gategate risks seriously damaging our political discourse.

Since we’re dangerously close to robbing the term of all meaning, let’s look back to 1972 and the Watergate scandal, where this whole “-gate” thing began. The Nixon administration notoriously covered up its involvement in a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex. This startling revelation lead to other disclosures regarding illegal activities the administration was responsible for, and eventually resulted in the only resignation of the President of the US in history. It was, in so many words, a big deal.

Since then “-gate” has been appended to other, progressively less significant news stories.

Old media used to act as the gate keeper of gate-worthiness and, while they didn’t do a bang up job, they did a lot better than we’re doing today. Thanks to social media’s apparently democratizing effect, David, as well as Goliath, can now deem an event gate-worthy. While this is, in theory, a good thing, in practice it means that everything (and nothing) is gate-worthy. Worse still, “-gate” is being used to lend credence the most toxic of ideas.

Built up through social media, #gamergate was sparked by a bilious blog post about Zoe Quinn, an indie game developer, by her angry ex-boyfriend. The post quickly became massively distorted as some sort of “fucked her way to the top” scandal (apparently releasing a well received indie game about your own experience of depression is “the top” nowadays).

In the shadow of Quinn’s imagined corruption, her detractors launched an organized campaign of harassment, including rape and death threats, and this campaign quickly expanded to target other prominent women in the games industry. These sorts of things get glossed over when you add the suffix “-gate” to your sexist rant.

While it’s true that vocal extremists could have done the same damage with any other catchy hashtag, the fact is that they didn’t. “-gate” carries connotations of corruption, and that reframed the issue for many casual observers, and even a handful of mainstream news outlets, as one of corruption.

There shouldn’t be any debate over whether it’s corrupt for a journalist to stand against misogyny just because they know the victim, and yet there’s a huge, somehow still ongoing debate about conflict-of-interest specifically within video game journalism.

In the aftermath of #gamergate, the bandwagon became all too easy to notice, what with its shiny, new coat of paint. Every perceived controversy now gets a “-gate” appended to it, in much the same way that the first kid in a class of twelve-year-olds who learns the F-word will suddenly inspire everyone else to start using it.

Just idly scrolling through my Twitter feed this week, I saw a #lattegate and a #bendgate within a few minutes of each other. The former concerns a video of President Obama holding too many things in his hands and giving two military troops a salute while holding a cup of coffee. The latter is that the new iPhone is kinda bendy. Seriously. That’s goddamned it. Definitely a lot of common ground between that time the leader of the largest Western superpower committed illegal, clandestine abuses of power that could have resulted in impeachment and how a new cell phone is only okay.

But if #lattegate is just a hashtag making its rounds on social media, then what do we make of a big news organization like CNN actually tweeting the term #bendgate, the point in which the naming trend has become so dumb that it actually sounds like it could be describing an actual kind of gate? This is where #gategate comes full circle, where the asinine #gates of the collective everyman become an actual naming trend in actual big media.

The problem isn’t that the Watergate scandal spawned new terminology for labeling the controversial. Language evolves and adapts in order to keep up with culture, but like culture, language can also devolve. The problem is that “-gate” has become ubiquitous. When it covers everything from reality tv scandals to fabricated scandals distracting from actual hate campaigns to fucking coffee, a “-gate” doesn’t mean a big scandal; it doesn’t even signal a small scandal; it means nothing at all.


Originally published at abstractmag.com on September 26, 2014.