Challenge Accepted: Interviewing an Internet #Hashtag

This article originally appeared on on August 12, 2015.

“I believe that mainstream media is partly responsible for GamerGate. We are partly responsible for all the paranoia, the hyper-sensitivity on both sides, because I’ve always believed this: if you are in the media and you don’t cover somebody adequately, you’re doing a disservice to society. If you ignore a subculture they don’t go away, they just get pissed off. The most radical elements in those movements will then rise to the top because there’s no place for reasonable voices to express themselves.” — Michael Koretzky, Regional 3 Director for the Society of Professional Journalists on Super Podcast Action Committee Episode 151.

GamerGate, and more broadly online movements, present an interesting problem for journalists. How do we adequately cover an online movement that is fiercely leaderless, largely anonymous, with no commonly accepted goals other than the often derided catchphrase, “It’s actually about ethics in games journalism?”

In the podcast Koretzky concluded, “There’s got to be a way that GamerGate can put some voices forward that can – not speak for everyone – but articulate something that most of GamerGate agrees on without being a leader.”

After observing GamerGate for the past year I figured such a scenario to be unlikely. GamerGate supporters are too paranoid to suggest anyone’s voice carries more weight. If journalists are going to adequately cover GamerGate, we have to figure out how to reach them.

I decided to run an experiment and see first-hand the difficulties one might encounter when covering an online movement. Rather than wait for GamerGate to come to us, I went to them. I joined their very popular Kotaku in Action (KiA) subreddit and interviewed several hundred GamerGate supporters from Tuesday, July 28 through Tuesday, August 4. It is my hope that what I learned will assist journalists with covering GamerGate and any similar movements in the future.

The Experiment

I asked one question on the KiA subreddit every 12 hours. The question was stickied (placed at the top in the most recognizable area) until I posted a new question. The new question was then stickied and they were given an additional 12 hours to submit replies to the old question and vote on their favorite answer. After I asked 7 questions I then asked 7 follow up questions on the final day.

The purpose of the experiment was to see if I could cover GamerGate in a transparent way that allayed their innate distrust of journalists by giving them control over their own answers and to garner a large enough response to accurately represent the collective opinions of the movement.

I did have some concerns going in to the experiment: would I get “true” answers from respondents, or would they be transparent attempts at public relations? Could I ask them difficult questions without them becoming hostile? Would I get enough responses to accurately portray the opinions and positions of the larger movement?

At the end of it, after all the questions were answered and comments collected, I believe it was a successful experiment.

The Interview

With more than 2,000 answers to the initial set of questions, and 703 answers to my follow ups, I was thrilled with the response. Answers varied between the rare blatant insult to the overly verbose but obviously well considered answer and all points between. I had originally planned to include the entire interview with the top-voted answer Q&A style, but space limitations prevent that. Instead, I will link to the questions and their follow ups in their entirety, and you will be able to view all their answers, sorted by most votes. It should be noted that, though I have included a sampling of responses from KiA commenters, their inclusion is not a validation of any of the claims made. The point of including them is to show what they generally agreed to be their “truth” on a variety of questions.

Original QuestionsResponsesFollow UpsResponses
Question 1322Q1a145
Question 2340Q3a122
Question 3351Q3b118
Question 4214Q4a68
Question 5497Q5a78
Question 6186Q6a78
Question 7127Q7a94

I asked my first question, “What is GamerGate?” because that will be asked at the upcoming SPJ AirPlay discussion on August 15 and I wanted to compare answers.

Their top-voted response explained, “GamerGate is a movement dedicated to fighting for ethics in (gaming) journalism and against censorship and the politicization of (gaming) media and games. It arose after several corruption scandals in the gaming media, attacks on the gamer identity and attempts by the gaming media and ‘cultural critics’ to force a political ideology down the throats of gamers.”

When I asked if they couldn’t just ignore these attacks, they generally agreed that gaming media, which once defended against right-wing attacks from Jack Thompson, is now joining a new attack on gaming from feminist progressives. “The very media who had once defended gaming vigorously against attacks from folks like Jack Thompson are turning around and being a voice for similar attacks, just from a moral rather than a legal standpoint.”

I wanted to address the thorny issue of harassment to give the group a chance to respond to allegations that have been made since its inception a year ago. My question: “Even if you argue that the harassment didn’t come from GamerGate supporters and that it’s an open hashtag that anyone can use, does GamerGate bear some responsibility for the harassment associated with the movement?”

Nearly all of the 351 responses said no, they were not responsible for the actions of other people. They believe the media has not done its job questioning whether or not people have, in fact, been victimized as a result of the controversy. While they are quick to condemn harassment they are not sympathetic with people they claim have a financial incentive to claim or even induce their own harassment.

The top response argued, “Harassment is wrong. We condemn it regularly. So much that it’s become tiring. Unfortunately harassment happens to any celebrity with any amount of renown… Additionally, according to the recent WAM report, of all those [accounts blocked by the GamerGate autoblocker] there is an incredible minority (<1%) that have engaged in harassment.”

He continued, “The bigger your name, the more harassment you receive. That doesn’t mean it comes from GamerGate. They could have kept a lower profile and reduced their harassment, they chose not to. They don’t deserve it… but the more attention, the more harassment.”

They are quick to point out that many on the GamerGate side have suffered harassment, doxxing, and threats as well.

When I asked whether suggesting victims of harassment keep a lower profile would be considered victim blaming, the top response claimed that “these ‘victims’ were actively soliciting their own abuse” and, “Stating that someone receiving unwanted negative attention from the masses should be keeping a low profile is not ‘victim blaming.’ It’s just common sense.” The response then went on to claim there were financial incentives for those claiming harassment.

From there I asked about the current goals of GamerGate. The top response called for “acknowledgement that erasure and misrepresentation [of GamerGate supporters] occurred” by major news outlets who often spoke about GamerGate targeting women and minorities while ignoring the number of women and minorities who support the movement. Most of their responses talked about holding journalists to ethical standards.

I then asked them how flooding hashtags helps them achieve their goals and received some interesting answers related to Koretzky’s quote at the beginning of this article. Several of them said that they have to flood hashtags because the media is not giving them attention. They also do it because they believe people interested in a particular hashtag may not be educated on the issues which concern GamerGate.

The vast majority noted that their opinions of mainstream media have either worsened as a result of its coverage of GamerGate or that their view of mainstream media was already so poor that it couldn’t have worsened.

Some of my questions were designed to be somewhat inflammatory, to test how GamerGate would react. Interestingly, the question they thought most inflammatory received the most responses.

I asked, “Perhaps the most common explanation or critique of GamerGate from its detractors that I’ve seen is that GamerGate is a bunch of angry men lashing out at women in order to protect the status quo and keep video game culture a boys’ club. What is your response to that?”

Turns out their response was simple and succinct, answered by someone who identifies as female, “1. Gaming is not a boy’s club. 2. I’m a girl. 3. I’ve always been welcome.”

Many spoke out about this question, calling it leading, likening it to asking “when did you stop beating your wife?” There was some colorful language included in many of the responses. One user told me that his wife wanted to slap me. Many of them pointed to the #NotYourShield project, designed to showcase minorities and women who support GamerGate, as evidence that their movement is inclusive.

Finally, I asked for their most egregious example of unethical games journalism in the past five years.

Responses varied considerably, with the press treatment of Brad Wardell during his sexual harassment lawsuit (which was thrown out of court) getting the most mentions.

Overall the interview was a fascinating experience. Most expressed skepticism about whether or not this article would treat them fairly, but also agreed that they would be willing to engage in similar interviews in the future.