Even Doing Academic Research On Video Games Puts Me At Risk

By A.D. Andrew

“Hey,” my friend asks, breaking the silence over our work table. “You still have those guidelines for getting rid of personal information online? Can you send them to me?”

I tell him I do, and I will, but that it isn’t really guidelines; it’s more of a set of lists and advice, dedicated to scrubbing as much visible presence as possible from the internet while still maintaining some semblance of a profile. Not so much a list as a set of survival strategies — parameters for setting parameters. “You’ll need to set aside a few hours,” I tell him. “Maybe most of a day.”

I wait until later that evening to message the results when I search him. I’ve been here before; at first, everyone thinks they’re safe, that there’s nothing there about them. Doxing is a problem in the abstract, but they’re immune. The look on their face when they find out they’re not is heartbreaking. It’s a moment of loss; suddenly the internet is no longer cat pictures and Wikipedia entries, but a sinister mire of danger. I tell myself it’s because I want to give him the space to experience that shift on his own, but the truth is, I don’t want to see his face in that moment.

“I didn’t know your middle name was David,” I type. “The street where your mother lives is pretty nice. Not sure which is hers, but that’ll be easy to figure out. When did you live in Texas? You never told me. Funny to find out your girlfriend’s brother is younger. I would have guessed older. He goes to a good school. Oh, and I already knew your address, but it’s right here.” I paste the link and hit enter. I’ve found the year, make, and model of his car, the ages of his family members, their locations, his girlfriend’s family, the address of the company where his brother is interning. It doesn’t surprise me that I can find such a wealth of information. All that does surprise me is that I’m doing this for a man.

In the past, it’s always been women who have asked my help in finding — and scrubbing out — the trails they leave online. But this young man I’m so helpfully doxxing is a fellow researcher on a developing project about online harassment in digital communities, and he has good reason to be concerned.

A year before, if he’d asked for my help, I’d have laughed and said something like “hey, don’t worry, they forget about the men quickly.” But that was before Jake Rapp, husband of former Nintendo spokesperson Alison Rapp, was doxxed, before nude pictures (maybe authentic, maybe not) were spread across the digital landscape, along with his personal information — all because he was married to a woman targeted by online mobs. Jake Rapp seems gentle, funny, self-deprecating. My friend is, too. I do not want to see him hurt, his career damaged.

But there are plenty of people who might. We’re not activists; we’re academics. And yet, in recent years, even those of us fully ensconced in the Ivory Tower have been targeted by online hate mobs who take our research as a threat.

***

Academics, even those of us who study games, digital communities, and harassment, aren’t frontline targets. We might be flooded with fake paper submissions, or see a study attacked in a Medium post, but compared to the writers on mainstream tech, feminist, and gaming sites, we aren’t quite as visible. However, our work isn’t as hidden as that of other academics, either. Digital scholarship, more and more, is online, free of paywalls. Sometimes this means a few Reddit threads about an article; sometimes it means social media harassment that can continue for days, weeks, months; sometimes it means calls to the university calling for termination. When our department hired a new head, one of the first things we did was sit down for a frank discussion about the preemptive measures we, and they, might need to take. Wonderful for first impressions. “Hi, we’re your faculty and students, and people might want to get us fired for being feminists. Expect a threatening message or six from time to time.”

Since the Gamergate movement began, we’ve learned more and more about the risks, but the digital hate mobs didn’t start with that hashtag and it extends far beyond the realm of Gamergate’s homes on 8chan and Reddit. Image boards, subreddits, and forums galore serve as central hubs for different interest groups. Some compile information on anyone they find funny. Some spread information for malicious purposes. On others, it just comes up, often without the poster seeming to realize how alarming it can be. A colleague of mine was accused of colluding with a games journalist for a mainstream site after the journalist praised her work. That turned into a discussion about her classes, where she was. “Her other information is private, though,” someone said. They were searching.

We spent that afternoon in the small room that serves as our main gaming lab, making a list of sites she should check for information. Crash Override, founded by Zoe Quinn and Alex Lifschitz in the middle of the long harassment campaign against the former, has a good list of places to start. “I never post on Twitter, and my Facebook is private,” my colleague said, as we removed her e-mail address from the university directory. “I’m sure it’ll be fine. How much could be out there?”

I don’t know how sites like Spokeo and Pipl get information. I am not an expert in anything but erasure. As she worried, I typed; I read off an address and her eyes widened behind her glasses. “That’s my parents.”

“Here’s another address, an old one. Your current phone number.” Still, all in all, she was right: it wasn’t too much information. A manageable risk. We could remove most of it. She called her parents, leaving a message, because they’d have to do some work, too. More of their information lurked behind a paywall, and was possibly available elsewhere. “I’ll have to call them back,” she said slowly. “I have to let them know to take it seriously.” She’s small, my friend, and pale. Usually, I think of her as tough, but in that moment, she was shaken, worried. For hours we sat around the circular table in the lab, moving through the sites one by one, filling out forms, sending e-mails, requesting records be removed.

That is what manageable risk looks like.

Some resources encourage women to file preemptive police reports, just in case someone falsely calls in a SWAT team. For another colleague, a Black woman, who’s had the police used against her before, that isn’t an option. The process is harder and more worrisome. She has a family to consider. Everything must be removed. Everything.

***

I first learned to wipe my digital footprint almost two years ago, before delving more deeply into research on digital communities and representation in gaming. It’s the kind of work that creates targets. YouTuber and Gamergate supporter John Bain, aka TotalBiscuit, famously commented that critic Anita Sarkeesian “inserted herself into the conversation” about Gamergate by releasing a video in her Tropes vs. Women series, taking on sexism in video games, during the hashtag movement’s early stages. Never mind she hadn’t mentioned Gamergate at all, or that her series was ongoing and not a taunt to the “movement.” Never mind that Sarkeesian had long been in harassers’ crosshairs; never mind that two years prior, a game allowing players to punch Sarkeesian’s virtual face had surfaced in response to the beginning of her series. Never mind that she would have been — and had been — attacked for the most benign game criticism, basic notions about representation and presentation. Never mind that all any woman has to do to become a target is critique games from a feminist perspective. According to Bain, the onus was on her. She had made herself a target.

That phrasing is never far from my mind. But the thing is, there’s no way for women, for feminists, to critique games outside of some impossible notion of objectivity without becoming targets. To do the work at all is to become a target. We have to choose between silence and the acceptance of risk.

That first time, I dedicated an entire weekend to the work of removing years of web presence. An old MySpace page; a discarded Flickr account, still set public, with pictures of my family. Online detritus. I searched old forum usernames for anything that might link to me. The past can surface too easily and be used as a weapon.

But hardest were the dozens of sites aggregating personal data. My partner looked over my shoulder as I continued to work through those lists. “What about this one,” he asked, pointing. “It’s old,” I said. “Five or six addresses ago and I have to prioritize. I can only remove five entries at a time from this site.” In the end, there’s no way to get everything.

Since that weekend, I’ve done this four times for others. My male colleague is the fifth. I send him my lists and resources, with cautions. “Google yourself first, then go through these sites. Try different permutations of your name, with and without middle initial. Search different locations. Find everything, even if it doesn’t matter.” I send instructions on removal. “Set a schedule. Check back in a month, six weeks, three months. Sometimes information doesn’t get removed. Sometimes it pops back up.”

I search myself now every six weeks. Last year I took down my website; I won’t put it back until I am on the job market. I changed my Twitter account, locked down other social media. I still existed for colleagues and friends, but was harder to find. I can’t afford to disappear completely, though I know others who do, who have no social media presence, despite studying digital communities. What will that do for their academic credibility? In a few years we’ll find out; for now, they’ve chosen safety and peace of mind.

Everywhere, academics with a digital focus are forced to make that choice. Can we afford to exist publicly? Others are making the choice in a different way — by not writing that article, by not pursuing that line of thinking. We talk often about the people silenced by online harassment, but research is being silenced as well. We are losing knowledge and with it, the potential for growth. How can we change these problems if we cannot understand them?

For now, we measure risks. We look for what’s manageable.

***

Lead image: daveynin/flickr

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