An Incomplete (but growing) History of Harassment Campaigns since 2003
What I have here is a form of open research, it’s in progress, and still being researched from an ethnographic standpoint. It’s incomplete but I wanted to publish it to show progress. Please check back for frequent updates (per example, I am still adding in things for 2017). If you would like to contribute, feel free to submit here (this link will only be open for two weeks).
I think there’s never been a better time to talk about, and recount, the history of online harassment campaigns. This is in-progress research I’m conducting as a 2018–2019 visiting research fellow with digital HKS an initiative at Harvard Kennedy School (you can learn more about digital HKS here).
2017 marked the year of the one first accountable deaths to online harassment, a death initiated from a “prank” swatting related to videogames. The term prank, is key here but also a false misnomer, since in practice swatting is the now deadly act of placing a false call to a local police station or police force to illicit the SWAT team to a victim’s house. Swattings, and prank swattings, designed to intimate, harm and harass, are nothing new. In 2015, Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts tried to pass a bill specifically focused on swattings, and then, post her own swatting in 2016, added an appeal to add more severe criminal punishment for this act, which included up to 20 years in jail if a victim faced bodily harm. The bill ended up not passing. However physical though, swattings are a manifestation of online harassment.
The rise of misinformation, disinformation, and digital violence coming from organized spaces of the alt-right and far-right, I argue, do come from the same and similar spaces that launched online harassment campaigns. In fact, these two ideologies and trends can be linked, as theorist and researcher Katherine Cross has argued for the Daily Beast on how the 2017 hashtag #CNNBlackmail and coordination behind it, pulled directly from the Gamergate playbook. This event #CNNBlackmail which culminated in MAGA supporters doxxing CNN employees was in response to a CNN article that, in term, was responding to a reddit user who created or posted a gif of Donald Trump slamming a body with a CNN logo to the ground, CNN used language that implied CNN could have doxxed the identity of that reddit user) pulled directly from the Gamergate playbook. Similar to Gamergate, the ensuing Twitter threads posted anti-semitic memes and rhetoric, violence, and also, actually doxxed innocent CNN employees and their families. Additionally, Cross has argued in the Baffler on how the ‘joking’ and ‘ironic’ rhetoric of 4chan was replicated in Gamergate’s harassment campaigns, and we see this now with the Alt-right (as well as outright violent digital threats coming from the alt-right).
Many of the social norms, vocabulary and ideals of the alt-right were established by Gamergate, and pre-gamergate organizing within sub-groups on Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan. SJWs, redpilling, fighting identity politics as well as how to organize and antagonize, harass and intimate their opponents? Gamergate did this, and did this well, and at a large. But, online harassment existed long before Gamergate. The internet has had a long history of online strife.
Some basic background on online harassment:
Over 41% of US adults have faced some form of online harassment, according to a report done by Pew Research. Online harassment is a multi-pronged issue, it’s one that involves policy, design, platforms, individuals, large scale campaigns, and abuse that ranges from death threats to digital stalking, personal attacks, and to having one’s addressed shared. There’s little institutionalized support for victims of online harassment and there’s generally no recourse for their abusers. There have been multiple articles full of anecdotal evidence of police asking victims to help explain what is Twitter, and or being told to just ignore their harassment.
With the rise of the alt-right, and now, the manifestation of physical violence within PizzaGate, it seems incredibly necessary to start a cohesive document on the history of online harassment, to mark how long it’s existed, and how much it’s evolved over the years, especially with the creation of new social media platforms.
Part of studying and understanding online harassment is having a robust list of what is online harassment and the events that have led up to the present day in one space. When I was researching gamergate, a common thread that I heard over and over again was “how is this happening” and “what can we do about it” but the systematic harassment that gamergate perpetuated had existed before, and campaign harassment, like gamergate, had happened multiple times before, it just wasn’t as well covered by media and journalism outlets like gamergate had.
Definitions of Harassment:
First, what is online harassment and how many different kinds are there? There’s doxxing (the release of someone’s personal documents- lik real name, credit card information, addresses, etc), dog pilling, sealioning, swatting, impersonation, threats of violence, non consensual image sharing (revenge porn), etc. Platforms are starting to create policy to define, analyze, and then mitigate harassment. Per example, most major platforms now specifically include a ‘no doxxing’ clause in their terms of service agreements.
There is a great glossary for more online harassment terms here:
Is Harassment harmful speech? From Harvard and the Berkman Center
From the online harassment wiki started by Nathan Mattias
“Harmful speech consists of a range of phenomenon that often overlap and intersect, and includes a variety of types of speech that cause different harms. The most familiar type is hate speech, which commonly refers to speech which demeans or attacks a person or people as members of a group with shared characteristics such as race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or disability.
In one of the papers the Harmful Speech project at the Berkman Klein Center recently released, Andrew Sellars examines prior efforts to define hate speech, offers an in-depth examination of the theoretical context of hate speech and summarizes emerging themes in the discussion and scholarship of hate speech online.
An alternative framing — online harassment — is defined by Amanda Lenhart and collaborators as “unwanted contact that is used to create an intimidating, annoying, frightening, or even hostile environment for the victim and that uses digital means to reach the victim.” The Women’s Media Center describes how harassment online may include a variety of tactics — from doxxing to revenge porn to gender-based harassment and beyond — that impact targets in legal, physical, emotional, and in other consequential ways.
Focusing on a narrower subset of harmful speech, Susan Benesch defines dangerous speech as that which increases the risk of violence through a range of rhetorical techniques (e.g. instilling fear by warning of impending threats) and may contain explicit threats or incitement to violence.”
Duggan, M. (2014, October). Online Harassment. Pew Research Center.
“In a U.S. study by Pew, Duggan surveyed U.S. residents on their experience of online harassment, a study that included being called an offensive name, being embarrassed, being threatened, being harassed over a period of time, being sexually harassed, and being stalked. Cyberbullying has been a focus of much of the research about online harassment, an issue covered in the Berkman review of “Bullying in a Networked Era,” which defines bullying, identifies the people involved, and describes the norms around bullying and help-seeking among young people. The law can sometimes see things in different categories than people experience them: Marwick and Miller offer a clear, accessible outline of the law around obscenity, defamation, “fighting words,” “true threats,” unmasking, hate speech, and hate crimes in U.S. law — with a substantial effort to define hate speech…”
(an incomplete) Timeline of Harassment Cases and Campaigns
But before we get started, it’s important to note that some of these harassment campaigns also involve, what some would argue as social media protest and/or necessary protest. Some harassment campaigns are against ‘bad people who do bad things’ and/or exist as satire. That’s what makes documenting this, historically, so difficult (and why a much larger, longer timeline and write up is coming). For example, tracking down two girls who tortured an animal to death? Is that harassment when they committed, what some would call an atrocious crime, or is it outing? For this write up, it’s campaigns that resulted in what would be defined as harassment, regardless of what triggered or started the campaign. I’m documenting this to see the history of tactics used to harass, as well as the platforms used.
A longer write up will cover the nuances of the campaigns, and building in the complicated ethical standpoints of ‘justification’ and campaigns that walk the line of protest and harassment. This longer write up is necessary to not lessen and de-legitimize very real, upsetting, dangerous and damaging harassment that victims have received.
(okay, now the dates!)
1990- first irc fight
(while this isn’t harassment, it’s one of the first reported large scale schisms in a social network. It’s important to highlight this because policy, rules, and norms could have been created at this time to start handling disagreements and strife amongst users. For example, implementing or creating a Code of Conduct early on may help mitigate and manage harassment and abuse later, because you are creating norms around analyzing and handle disagreements before those disagreements turn into bigger disagreements and harassment. Additionally, you are priming the community to recognize and respond to toxic behavior when they see it. It’s creating social norms where those norms make it harder for harassment to grow and thrive).
<Something here is missing- have there been usenet campaigns? BBS harassment? Friendster, Myspace, Livejournal? This is research I’m starting to conduct>
2003 — Dan Savage creating a new meaning of Santorum https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campaign_for_%22santorum%22_neologismThis could definitely be argued as protest and political protest and satire (and I would argue it is!), but it is worth pointing out this was created to antagonize Rick Santorum and is one of the earliest early digital coordinations and campaigns.
<Founding of Reddit, 4Chan? Early harassment there? >
Some early anonymous campaigns could be argued as harassment campaigns (those campaigns to be listed shortly after consulting with other researchers)
Fall 2006 — Jason Fortuny’s Craigslist experiment — publishing an explicit craiglist ad to seattle craigslist and doxxing every reply.
2007- Weev attacking Kathy Sierra
In 2007, Kathy Sierra started receiving harassment, which included threatening emails and blog posts as well as death threats.
March 2007 — AutoAdmit college admissions site harassment of law students.
Blog post on it by Jill Filipovic who was a victim of it. http://ms-jd.org/blog/article/when-law-students-attack
March 2008: Trolls hijack the Epilepsy Foundation website with flashing images — https://encyclopediadramatica.se/Epilepsy_Foundation
April 2008 — Chinese Trolls send western journalists death threats and doxx them after reports about Tibet — ” The French and European Union embassies in Beijing have received numerous harassing telephone calls. Several Western reporters have been besieged by death threats since their cellphone numbers and other details were posted online. “http://articles.latimes.com/2008/apr/19/world/fg-backlash19
2009 Bill Waggoner crew- trolling campaign, focused on Facebook memorials. From the Encyclopedia Dramatica page, “RIP trolling consists of going on the Facebook Memorial Pages and posting ‘lol u died’ videos and poorly made shoops of the deceased.
2010- Penny Arcade dickwolves
Penny Arcade makes a joke about ‘dickwolves’ and rape in their comic strip. A bunch of people online posted that this joke “wasn’t funny.” Penny Arcade makes dickwolf tee shirts, and interactive media producer Courtney Stanton wrote a blog post about not attending Pax East, and makes a shirt about “dickwolves survivor guild”- both around the conference Pax East. Stanton is subjected to harassment, goes underground, etc. Courtney did some web analysis of trolls but that seems to be missing. (note: Courtney and I spoke a few years ago about this topic)
August 2013- #solidarityisforwhitewomen
This was a counter campaign to talk about Hugo Swychezers’s attacks on WOC feminists, writers, and bloggers. So he had been attacking people from 2008 onward, and the white feminist left bloggers ignored it.(this can be linked to operation lollipop)
Sometime in 2013 — Ask.fm bullying suicides with teens
March 2013 r/findbostonbombers- manhunt could be argued as a form of harassment since it incorrectly identified innocent people and lead to large scale harassment against those innocent targets.
December 2013 — Reddit Men’s Rights campaign to spam Occidental College’s rape/sexual assault reporting forms. “That spurred a flood of false reports, some of which claimed that assaults had been perpetrated by “Occidental College,” “feminists” or “Fatty McFatFat.” It was clear to administration officials that those reports “were clearly not made in good faith,” and the sheer number of reports — over 400 in just 36 hours — was also suspicious.”
Jan 31, 2014 Operation #FreeBleeding
A 4chan operation to trick feminists into fighting over freelbeeding and engaging the hoax campaign.
From know your meme: Operation Freebleeding “On January 31st, 2014, a thread was created on 4chan to propose the launch of “Operation Freebleeding,” a false flag campaign in which 4chan users would rally around “free bleeding” under the pretense of promoting feminism and self-empowerment, thereby hoping to provoke angry responses from the feminist blogosphere….”
July 4, 2014- Independence Day Raid
Feminists tried to troll b/random/, 4chan attacked tumblr after this
July 2014- Operation Lollipop
4channers/trolls decide to create infighting amongst feminists, they create a bunch of fake WOC feminist accounts to start a fake campaign called #EndFathersDay to create in-fighting amongst feminists as well as create general dislike towards feminists.
ActivistsSo Treu created the hashtag #YourSlipIsShowing to document the harassment of Operation Lollipop. This documentation currently lives on Storify. The history of #YourSlipIsShowing is also documented by Sydette Harry.
July 2014- Operation Shellshock
4chan finds two teen girls who tortured a protected wildlife turtle to death
August 2014- Fappening- leaked nude celebrity images, published through 4chan
July 2015- FemCon
Vaguely ‘related’ to operation lollipop, a fake feminist conference that was charging $50 per person- it was designed to trick feminists
Fall 2014, “Emma, Your Next”
Targeted harassment campaign (which was ultimately a hoax) on 4chan against Emma Watson with a clock counting down to a date to release nudes of Emma Watson. The campaign was a hoax, and when the date came, nothing wa released. However, it seems (and could be argued) this was a retaliation campaign into Watson giving a well known feminist speech at the United Nations that year.
Zoe Quinn released her game, Depression Quest, in 2013, and received a lot of harassment. It could be argued that earlier harassment was started by people who would later join Gamergate. However, Gamergate hashtag first appeared sometime in August 2014 (maybe August 27, 2014) by Adam Baldwin (according to here, Adam’s own words here, here. The Zoe post (zoe’s ex wrote a post about her that sparked gamergate) went live on August 16, 2014.
Much of 2015 would also cover the continued harassment of Gamergate, with other victims like Brianna Wu, Anita Sarkeesian as well as others- this will be explored in the longer write up. There are many victims of harassment who are not as publicly known- Gamergate affected everyday games developers, lesser known or upcoming critics, artists, etc. Gamergate had many targets and many victims. It’s also incredibly important to note that this article on Wikipedia about Gamergate then resulted in harassment within English Language Wikipedia, which resulted in the article page being locked, and this case being tried in Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee (this is like the Supreme Court of Wikipedia).
Nov 2015 Someone photoshopped Veerender Jubbal to look like a bomber and Gamergate shared this image over and over again to create a hoax campaign he was one of the Paris bombers.
(most likely more harassment campaigns missing here
An article about Trump supporters and MAGA: from 2015 (first reported instance of MAGA?)
August 2015- Operation Harpoon
Take photos of plus size women and photoshop them smaller
echoes ((())) — can be traced back to the daily shoah, a neo-nazi podcast, in 2014, was written about in 2016 by Policy Mic https://mic.com/articles/144228/echoes-exposed-the-secret-symbol-neo-nazis-use-to-target-jews-online#.482BSTKFH
(much longer write up coming) but a stoner comic becomes a symbol of the alt-right
Sept 2016- this article written, pepe is included in the ADL’s hate symbols database. http://www.newsweek.com/pepe-frog-hate-symbol-alt-right-503773
A fake news/misinformation campaign that grew out of leaked Wikileaks emails from the DNC and Clinton campaign. It involved everyday citizens and bloggers creating a conspiracy theory that a children pornograpy and trafficng ring was beneath a well known DC pizzeria. This resulted in an armed gunman coming into the Pizzeria to find the kidnapped children, of which there were none because this was a hoax and a conspiracy theory.
May 2016- women facing harassment in sports #MoreThanMean- using a counter campaign against disjointed, highly personalized (meaning person to person) harassment
Operation Google, Sept or Oct 2016
A raid launched against Google Jigsaw and it’s Conversational AI. Make the word ‘google’ actually a racial slur (currently stands for the n-word). http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/events/operation-googlehttps://ageofshitlords.com/4chan-pol-launching-operation-google/
2017 (still updating)
2018: Donut Gate
Similar to Pizzagate, online conspiracy theorists have alleged that Portland, Oregon’s Voodoo donut is the center of a child sex- trafficking ring.
And…more to come. (and more will be added!)