Why Is The Media Continuing To Sell Out Victims Of Abuse?
By Arthur Chu
One of the hardest things — probably the hardest thing — about seeing your world blow up and “go viral” when you become the center of some kind of newsworthy “controversy” is the lesson that there are no “good guys” in the world — not really.
There are good people, yes, people with good values and good intentions who do good things. But there’s no unified front of “the good guys” embodied in any institution — not the government, not any advocacy or protest organization, not any political party, and certainly not the press.
Others have written about what is and is not helpful when trying to help victims of abuse online. The problem is, again and again, that incentives put people at cross-purposes. “Raising awareness” is an important long-term goal in keeping people from being abused overall, yes — but individual victims of abuse mostly want awareness decreased, they want the hypervisibility they live under to stop. Raising money, raising votes, building organizations — these are all valuable goals, but they come at the very real cost of the ability of people who actually live within these “newsworthy” controversies to live in peace.
Telling someone they have to relive one of the worst things that ever happened to them, again and again, in order to “raise awareness” for the cause of putting a stop to abuse generally is basically telling them they’re one of the eggs that has to get broken to make an omelette — which is especially infuriating when the omelette ends up never arriving.
I think about this every time someone asks me to write an article “about Gamergate.” You always have to ask yourself if it’s worth it. You always have to ask yourself if you’re doing more harm than good. It’s a question I’ve asked myself retroactively, again and again, about whether all the ink I’ve spilled on Gamergate and online abuse has accomplished much beyond stirring the pot and making things worse for people more exposed to danger than me.
Which is the problem, because the reality is that the constant pressure when you work in media or in journalism is to keep talking about something as long as people are interested in reading it.
Take the reason I’m writing about this right now. Take Zoe Quinn.
One of the longstanding slanders beloved by members of hate mobs to justify the hateful things they do is that people who are harassed and abused “profit from harassment.” They like to point to people getting paid to speak or sit on panels or write columns (like this one) as proof that abuse somehow doesn’t matter. As though getting a paycheck here and there compensates for the fear and pain of having thousands of strangers go after you and try to ruin your life.
If you had to pick someone who was doing fairly well after the 2014–15 Internet fiasco we call “Gamergate,” the person originally targeted by it, Zoe Quinn, might be the example you’d gravitate to. She’s got a book coming out with a major publisher and a film in the works based on her life, with rumors of Scarlett Johansson playing the character based on her. She’s gotten to speak at the UN. She’s been on TV, she’s been profiled in publications, she’s “famous,” for what that’s worth in 2016.
On the other hand, she’s had strangers stuff things in her mailbox to intimidate her. She’s had to move from her former home city to a new location to try to keep herself safe — at significant personal and financial cost. She’s had to explain to her parents why they keep getting phone calls at their house calling their daughter a whore.
She can’t go to gaming conventions and events — that is, participate in a subculture that had been her entire social network in her former life — without worrying about security, looking at random guys walking past her with a twinge of fear. She can’t Google her own name without seeing page after page of smears calling her an awful, vile criminal based on rumors and lies, and wondering how many people out there believe those lies.
More concretely, she — along with a ton of the people I’ve talked to who’ve had experiences similar to hers — can’t go and get a regular job, with benefits. Any company that officially hitches its brand to hers paints a giant target on its back, puts itself at risk of sustained attack both public and private. It’s a headache most businesses don’t need. It’s the worst possible awkward topic to have to bring up at a job interview. It’s a constant albatross around your neck.
So she’s living the freelance life, like the majority of us who’ve become known, to one degree or another, in one context or another, as “harassment targets.” She’s got an impressive résumé on paper but one that doesn’t pay for health insurance or match 401(k) funds or even manage to pay regularly on the 2nd and 4th Fridays of the month.
Quinn and I aren’t close, but I know her through the same informal social network that a lot of so-called “anti-Gamergate” people know each other through. (By far the most realistic and the harshest bit in Jessica Jones for me was its depiction of the “survivors support group,” the awkwardness, the distrust, the futile attempts at building relationships or even temporary alliances among people who have nothing in common but a bad thing that happened to them — the absurdity of trying to create a system for solidarity between a man who had his jacket stolen and a woman who’s had her life destroyed.)
I see her Facebook statuses, her week-by-week venting, her struggle to make sure the rent gets paid on time, her exploding with fury at yet another request to write something or give a speech “for exposure,” her vomiting from stress at having to burn the midnight oil to make a close deadline. It’s all very similar to what I hear from the other freelance writers in my life, whatever their level of “fame,” just more intense and urgent. (I asked her if she wanted to be formally interviewed for this piece and she told me she just didn’t have the spoons.)
The most frequent refrain is I hear from her is “I just wanted to make games.” Someone who aspired to speak in front of the UN, and write a book about the brutality of online culture, and be played by Scarlett Johansson in a movie — that person wouldn’t have gone into making experimental games about depression in the first place. Someone who wanted all of this crap wouldn’t have had to be dragged into it, involuntarily, by an angry ex with an axe to grind and 9,000 words to waste on a vicious Wordpress takedown post.
All of this crap isn’t “profiting” — it’s making the best out of a disaster, eating the locusts that have devoured your crops and telling yourself you can get used to the taste.
And whose fault is it? Well, it’s the fault of an angry ex who understands the Internet well and admits to carefully engineering his words to make his screed about what a terrible person his former girlfriend was go viral among people who hate her.
But it’s also our fault. My fault. The fault of people like me who make a living writing about things and drawing attention to them and acting like that, in and of itself, makes a difference.
Take The Daily Dot. Take The Daily Dot’s Aja Romano, who, just last week, was tweeting in an aggrieved tone about how her publication wasn’t getting enough credit for airing Zoe Quinn’s story, proudly sharing the link to their 2014 piece about “The Sexist Crusade to Destroy Zoe Quinn’s Life.”
But right after Romano took the credit for airing “The Sexist Crusade to Destroy Zoe Quinn’s Life,” she aided and abetted that same crusade. Her next Daily Dot piece on the issue followed up on Quinn’s blog post — an emotional, raw, hard-to-take unedited wall of text that announced her decision to drop harassment charges against her ex because pursuing legal remedies against him was no longer worth the PR boost he got every time they ended up back in court together. She wanted the court case to stop being a story. She wanted this chunk of the unwanted attention to go away, and she said she only put up the blog post in the first place to make that reasoning clear so her ex’s side of the story wouldn’t be the only one out there.
So what did Romano do? She went to Quinn’s ex to get his side of the story, and to give him additional PR, and to draw attention back to Quinn’s court case. She effectively undercut and reversed every single element of Quinn’s rationale for dropping the charges. She wrote a piece entitled “Zoe Quinn’s ex-boyfriend denies her claim that her case against him is over” whose whole framing is questioning whether Quinn is lying about dropping the charges and quoting her ex, at length, about his ongoing crusade against the “gag order” (his words) Quinn forced on him in the name of free speech.
She tweeted a link to this piece the very next day after staking her claim to, essentially, owning the Zoe Quinn “story” and taking credit for “breaking” that story “before Gamergate was called Gamergate.”
Here’s a list of the ways The Daily Dot, basically, gave a harasser an unchallenged platform with that piece:
Romano frames it as Quinn “claiming” she dropped the harassment charges while her ex “denies” it, as though there’s a question of Quinn lying. In reality, there are two different, separate legal cases — one a restraining order that Quinn took out in September 2014, one a criminal harassment proceeding taken out by the State of Massachusetts in November 2015, in response to the events that led up to the restraining order.
The restraining order, which her ex repeatedly calls a “gag order,” specifically exists to prevent him from trying to cause her damage by directing people against her online — something he’d already clearly successfully done.
Quinn moved to vacate the restraining order in August 2015, after a year of her ex flagrantly violating it anyway with no legal consequences (and, among other things, mocking me publicly for suggesting he abide by it). Her ex is the one pushing to continue the court case over the restraining order, for the glory of “setting precedent” and promising to do an entertaining, “heavily-autotuned” no-holds-barred takedown of Quinn once he wins.
The harassment case was filed in November 2015. Quinn both vacating the restraining order and, now, dropping the charges in the harassment case is essentially a total legal surrender on her part, letting him do what he wants and get away with what he’s already done. Her ex pushing for an appeal is him using every means available to keep this case in the courts and keep attention turned on it.
All of this is easily searchable in the many articles — on The Daily Dot and elsewhere — about Quinn’s legal battles with her ex. Quinn writes about it in the blog post Romano links to. You could figure it out without interviewing anyone, just by reading the creepily exhaustive blow-by-blow from her ex’s cheering section on r/KotakuInAction, the home subreddit for treating Quinn’s abuse and all things Gamergate-related as a spectator sport.
And yet Romano goes along with Quinn’s ex’s framing at every turn, repeating uncritically his stance that he’s only standing up for free speech (even though now, legally, he can verbally abuse Quinn in public as much as he wants as soon as he drops his appeal). Romano muddies the waters by letting him talk about refusing to take a “plea deal” re: the restraining order, confusing the restraining order with the criminal case.
She leaves uncontested the idea that Quinn’s ex “inadvertently started Gamergate,” even though he’s on the record in multiple places saying he carefully planned his blog post to go viral so that as many people as possible could be made aware of his girlfriend’s misdeeds. She leaves untouched the fact that the crowdfunding page for his legal fees specifically says if he wins his challenge to the restraining order he will go into further detail about her moral and personal failings for a mass audience. She doesn’t interview a single lawyer and simply repeats Quinn’s ex’s secondhand assertions that his lawyers say such a restraining order is “unconstitutional” and “a golden ticket you can get in five minutes with pretty much no evidence whatsoever.”
Romano never mentions the actual law behind such restraining orders, which requires proof of a preexisting relationship that led to physical harm or fear of physical harm, both of which have been documented. Romano, despite bragging on Twitter about how she’s been on top of the “Zoe Quinn story” from beginning to end, never mentions the visible bruises Quinn’s ex left on her arm — even though she’s since testified about them to Congress.
Romano even goes so far as to repeat the original lie that launched a thousand Gamergate harassers, that Quinn slept with a game reviewer in return for positive coverage of her game, without mentioning how frequently and thoroughly that’s been debunked.
All of this is research that Romano could have done. But — as I saw when Quinn forwarded me a copy of the correspondence between her and Romano about this piece — it seems that once Quinn said she didn’t want to participate in the story, that was it for Romano trying to get “her side.”
Those are the rules of the court of public opinion. If you don’t show up to defend yourself, your “side” doesn’t get aired; journalists are busy and research takes time and if the “other side” is helpfully willing to provide all the framing and the content, they’ll take it. If, for some mysterious reason, it’s the abuser who’s willing to talk at length about his moral crusade and it’s the abused who wants to be left alone and unbothered, it ends up being the abuser who writes the terms.
That’s the devil’s bargain foisted on “controversial” people; you don’t get a choice in whether you “profit from harassment” by showing up to write an op-ed or give a speech or make a public appearance. If you don’t, someone else will decide who tells your story — and someone else will make the profit from it.
Quinn clearly knows that. It’s why she’s writing a book so someone else doesn’t write “the Gamergate explainer” and make money explaining what she went through to someone else; it’s why she took a deal to make an authorized movie based on her story, to combat the terrible, exploitative movies (and Law and Order episodes) that have been and will continue to be made without her involvement.
And it’s why she comes back, for interviews and testimonies and panels and hearings, for blog posts and op-eds, despite saying — in the very blog post Romano links to — that the publicity is screwing up her life. Because whenever she doesn’t show up to compound the stress of being abused by doing the emotional labor of describing, explaining and proving the abuse, her abuser gets another chance to tell the story his way. (It’s not even the first time The Daily Dot has given him a chance to, unchallenged, describe how he’s a good guy and a “feminist.”)
That’s the brutal logic of the market, when it comes to journalism and the stories of people’s lives and everything else. If you won’t publicize and commoditize your story, someone else will do it — you have to play the game or you lose control. I know that on a bone-deep level the way all other Internet-savvy Twitter-using millennials know it — it’s why I went along with upending my own life after a mob came after me over a goddamn game show appearance.
But it’s worth remembering that we’re shedding our societal safeguards against that ruthless market logic all the time. It’s worth remembering that, technically, “Gamergate” did not start because Zoe Quinn, an indie game developer, had an angry ex write a blog post describing her sordid infidelities and her selling herself for game review scores that went viral.
The reason for the name “Gamergate” — connoting scandal, coverup, conspiracy — is because of the “Zoe Post” going viral, and major outlets in the gaming media not covering it, because it was a nasty non-story with no value other than enabling one individual to hurt another.
“Gamergate” got its name because shit-stirring right-wing hack Milo Yiannopoulos sensed an opportunity to capture a zealous audience of reactionaries by playing into their conspiracy mindset, and “leaked” conversations from a private mailing list for games writers where people expressed sympathy for Quinn, discussed why covering the “story” of her ex’s nasty rumors was unethical and discussed what they could do without worsening the damage.
That, ironically, is one of the few real-life examples of “ethics in journalism” I can point to in recent years — of people abiding by community norms and a sense of community responsibility to not wring every cent of click-based profit they can out of social-media garbage. It’s the kind of ethos that, if it were widely followed, might put the brakes on disasters like doxing the wrong person as Michael Brown’s killer and driving his family to tears, or aiding and abetting a shady blackmail scheme to out someone’s sexuality against their will for no goddamn reason.
It’s the kind of “ethics” Gamergate is based on tearing down, because they view their ability to destroy reputations and ruin lives as a sacred right. It’s the kind of “ethics” modern media increasingly makes impossible, because of the hunger of the rapidly-moving news cycle, because of our increasing sense that we all live our lives in public and everything is fair game.
Romano likely doesn’t think she did anything wrong by giving Quinn’s ex a platform from which to address and rally his troops and release a fresh wave of attacks on Quinn — a small wave in the grand scheme of things, but they add up. Romano likely doesn’t see any contradiction in what she did with her latest piece and the one she spent the previous day bragging about, “covering” the Zoe Quinn saga, bringing attention of her plight to the masses.
Quinn is, after all, a “public figure,” and must take both negative and positive publicity in turn. The Ouroboros-like nature of the logic of becoming a “public figure” — that anyone can make you a public figure by making nasty accusations about you that go viral, that countering that negative publicity with positive becomes an unasked-for unpaid second job — that’s something The Daily Dot has ignored. It’s something, in fact, everyone ignores, when it’s convenient.
It’s easy to forget. Almost nobody who writes for a living is rich. Deadlines are always looming, rent’s got to be paid. I’m not even really writing this as a callout to Romano or to The Daily Dot so much as a callout of this media culture we live in and participate in and a reminder of how fucking exhausting the life of an “object of controversy” can be.
It’s why I’m trying to be conscious — in a way I frequently haven’t been in the past — of the responsibility I bear whenever I file a story, to ask whether I’m doing more harm than good. It’s why, for instance, I’m furious at Quinn’s ex but I haven’t written his name anywhere here — because I neither want to direct harassment his way nor boost his own profile and searchability when this piece goes up.
Because, even though I don’t know what the solution is, this problem can’t continue. I can see the list of victims growing — both the “successful” ones who’ve adapted to unwanted media hypervisibility and the many, many “unsuccessful” ones you’ve never heard of who buckled under it. And the least I can do is take the time and the energy and the occasional lost paycheck to try to be responsible.
Because, actually, it is about ethics in journalism.
Lead image credit: Images Money/Flickr