… the Society of Professional Journalists has finally weighed in (to the extent that they are likely to weigh in on any particular issue facing journalists). Who are the SPJ? Well, they’re the authors and curators of an Ethics Code which tends to serve as the “gold standard” for much of mainstream news media. Insofar as journalism has a moral authority of any kind, they’re probably it.
So what was their verdict on the #GamerGate controversy?
1) That virtually all ethical concerns presented to SPJ by the group have merit, and
2) That reporting on the controversy has been deeply skewed, largely by its origins in Gawker Media.
Gawker owns Kotaku, a vertical that covers video gaming. It was a Kotaku reporter, back in August of last year, whose connections to a rising independent game developer were handwaved away by the company’s Editor in Chief, Stephen Totilo. Totilo agreed that the reporter had given the developer favorable coverage, but that this was not unethical because their long-standing relationship did not become romantic until a week afterward. This would still seem to violate Totilo’s own declared standard that reporters with “any close relationship” should recuse themselves from coverage.
His statement went on to shift the issue from “favorable coverage” to “favorable reviews,” in order to deny the latter had happened at all—technically true, strictly within the confines of Kotaku. Competitor Rock Paper Shotgun had run an article by the same reporter, boosting the same developer’s game as the apparent best of fifty that had been released on Steam’s Greenlight publication system. Completing the appearance of the “close relationship” Totilo supposedly abhorred were the game’s credits, which at release named the reporter as “moral support.”
The SPJ’s Lynn Walsh, who recently helped update the Society’s Code of Ethics, made clear at “SPJ Airplay” this last weekend that Totilo and his reporter had both been in the wrong.
Yet it was not this minor scandal, but the means by which this came to anyone’s attention, which captivated the news media: the developer’s ex-boyfriend had posted a tell-all expose in which he painted her as a terrible, awful person.
If you have read anything about this over the last year, it was likely presented as “jilted ex mobilizing a hate mob.” The drama underlying the story turned it into one of women under fire in the gaming community, ignoring and dismissing all quid pro quo concerns as unimportant or, worse, a smoke screen for harassment. As the gaming press rallied around Kotaku reporter Nathan Grayson and his relationship with developer Chelsea van Valkenburg (aka “Zoe Quinn”), a tweet from actor Adam Baldwin coined the term “GamerGate.” Over the next few days, a flurry of gaming-news articles adopted the themes that gaming culture is toxic and “gamers are dead,” led in part by articles from Kotaku and Rock Paper Shotgun.
The widespread acceptance of harassment claims by “Quinn” were almost wholly based on her success in obtaining a gag order to stop purported abuse from the ex, Eron Gjoni, from a Massachusetts court. Gjoni, however, appealed, and a year later—almost to the day GamerGate became a term—Valkenburg has filed to nullify her abuse claim. Gjoni is asking the court to allow the case to move forward, so that he can finally defend himself against Valkenburg’s claims.
Allowing him to defend himself might have defused all of this from the beginning, since as it turns out, Valkenburg made none of the specific allegations under oath that she had when filing her police report. Instead, she walked her claims back to the point of a nebulous “wink-and-nod” conspiracy whereby Gjoni’s post did not spark a harassment campaign at all and stopped being the center of her claims against him. Her new story was that he was “feeding” her personal information—which did not appear anywhere in his blog post—to a pre-existing mob of online trolls in order to get at her by proxy. Neither she, nor her lawyer, were required by the court to provide any support for these allegations before they were accepted at face value and the hearing closed.
As with many other scandals that Gawker Media affiliates have broken, such minor details rarely matter. What matters is the drama and the attention which the drama garners for Gawker. This has been made amply clear in recent months, such as with the Hulk Hogan Sex Tape lawsuit proceedings and backblast from the outing of a rival media company’s accountant as gay. These events also served to remind people that Gawker had in the past outed people who turned out not to be gay, as well.
Perhaps this is why, at SPJ Airplay, everyone in the room laughed when the question of Gawker’s reliability as a source was brought up.
“I would never quote or cite them,” said Walsh, even as the last chortles were fading away.
Yet, most coverage of GamerGate to date has been reliant to one extent or another on either Kotaku or other Gawker verticals such as Jezebel. Editor Sam Biddle purportedly got into hot water by quipping that GamerGate was proof that “nerds need to be shamed into submission.” Extra points for saying that during Anti-Bullying Month, but last anyone checked he’s still on the company payroll. One person who’s no longer on that payroll is Max Read, who infamously posted a screed about “How We Got Rolled by the Dishonest Fascists of GamerGate.” Ultimately, CEO Nick Denton admitted the movement’s response to Gawker’s attacks on it had cost the company “seven figures” of advertising revenue.
But What About All the Harassment?
Well, aside from Valkenburg, who has just effectively pulled the plug on her own unsupported claims of being “the original GamerGate target,” the most prominent names are those of game-culture critic Anita Sarkeesian and developer Brianna Wu, both of whom, like Valkenburg, have claimed they fear for their lives to the extent of having fled their homes at one point or another. As Ms. Sarkeesian is the easiest to cover, let’s address her first.
She’s made a lot of allegations of harassment, both before and during GamerGate, but the biggest one had to do with a speaking engagement at Utah State University. Someone sent in a single threat, but it was a doozy—pipe bombs, semi-automatic weapons, and the promise of a “Montreal-style” mass-murder spree.
Ms. Sarkeesian canceled her speech and immediately went on a whirlwind tour of mainstream media, where no less than ABC’s Nightline told the world “What It Feels Like to be a GamerGate Target.” She arrived in what appeared to be an armored vehicle, and definitely with armed police escort, who swept the studio with weapons drawn as though expecting a gunfight at any moment.
Problem: on the same day the threat arrived, the FBI declared it to be “no threat” to anyone:
USU police, in conjunction with several teams of state and federal law enforcement experts, determined that there was no threat to students, staff or the speaker, so no alert was issued … Throughout the day, USU police worked to assess the level of threat with other local, state and federal agencies, including the Utah Statewide Information and Analysis Center, the FBI Cyber Terrorism Task Force, and the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit.
Perhaps just as interesting was the statement, “After a careful assessment of the threat, law enforcement officials determined that it was similar to other threats that Sarkeesian received in the past.” Not only was this threat a nothingburger, but it seemed the FBI was saying Ms. Sarkeesian hadn’t previously been in any danger, either.
And when we examine the threat itself, it’s a generic anti-feminist screed, making no mention of games at all. Instead, the sender cites a 1989 shooting spree, by an anti-feminist, as his inspiration. Connecting video games to the threat at all requires assuming that every anti-feminist on the planet is also a member of GamerGate. In fact, the only basis for assuming any such connection is that Ms. Sarkeesian says one exists … somehow.
Prior to this incident, her nonprofit had pulled in less than $45,000 in donations for the first three quarters of 2014. Afterwards, in the fourth quarter, nearly $400,000 came pouring in. Time Magazine went on to declare Ms. Sarkeesian the World’s Most Influential Person for the Video Game category.
Wu’s story changes from interview to interview, to the extent that time travel actually becomes a requirement to follow it. It also becomes glaringly clear that those reporting on the story are heavily reliant on citing Gawker as support.
On 12 October, Huffington Post ran a story in which Wu had purportedly fled her home over the preceding weekend in response to seven exceptionally nasty and graphic tweets. Sources? Kotaku, Venture Beat, and The Verge. HuffPo also linked to yet another Gawker article, this one from the main company itself, “explaining” GamerGate to the uninitiated. As to the tweets themselves, they contained Wu’s home address, other personal information, and death threats, but barely a passing reference to “a game nobody liked.”
Wu’s company had only released one game, on July 22nd. Yet on that same date, she gave an interview making the same claims about being bombarded by threats of rape and violence, including getting “doxxed.” Since January 2nd of last year, Wu said, she had been afraid to go out to her car alone.
At this point, GamerGate didn’t even exist, but everything needed for those tweets already did, according to Wu. So why is she positive these particular tweets came from GamerGate? HuffPo, following the lead of the Gawker articles, never bothers asking.
The following day, MSNBC’s Reid Report interviewed Wu, and the story immediately began to change.
Now she says she sent “six shots” via Twitter, each one a picture making fun of GamerGate, “thought nothing of it,” and that nothing else happened until later that evening. Then, she turned Twitter back on and saw her jests had been responded to with “thousands” of similar jests repurposing her pictures. None of these, as shown on MSNBC, made any threats. Regardless, a Re/Code reporter vetting Wu’s story, and co-guesting on the interview, asserted that Wu’s jokes were the sole reason she got the seven death threats reported by HuffPo.
Problem: This story completely changes in another interview with David Pakman, two weeks later.
In the new version, Wu doesn’t just fire off “six shots,” “think nothing of it,” and turn off Twitter; instead, she remains constantly engaged for “hours and hours and hours,” after which she takes a 24-hour break from Twitter. There’s no longer a “later that evening” for her to have come back to. And it’s only after this 24-hour break that Wu now alleges being doxxed and sent the seven nasty tweets … each one Twitter-timestamped as no older than fifteen minutes in Wu’s screencaps, per the HuffPo article.
In short, there’s no way for the death threats to have been part of the preceding day’s “jokestorm” at all. Where’s the connection to GamerGate?
According to Wu, it’s that GamerGate created, owns and operates 8Chan.co, and that therefore any communications between her and 8Chan, or anything which happens on 8Chan, are caused by GamerGate.
Problem: 8Chan.co predates GamerGate by two years. At the time of Wu’s claims, there was exactly one GamerGate board on it—alongside many other boards, devoted to everything from Christians to Furries. Apparently all GamerGate members are also Christian Furries and have been for years before GamerGate existed. Also, you can’t tweet directly to 8Chan.co or vice-versa. Neither site is built to allow it.
The notion that 8Chan—and therefore GamerGate!—spammed Wu in response to her tweets exists solely in Wu’s head, leaving the death threats as something anyone might have sent her, including the people she claimed already despised and had doxxed her before GamerGate’s existence.
I can confirm at this time: GamerGate does not have access to a DeLorean.
SUMMING UP THE WHOLE MESS: From all the verifiable information available (as opposed to hunches, opinions, political banter and so on), the #GamerGate hashtag movement makes a lot of good points about what’s wrong not just in gaming journalism today, but the business of journalism as a whole. Deflecting from those points with a moral panic, which relied on maximizing ancient stereotypes about gamers in general, should have been a non-starter. Instead, it’s created a whole new scandal: a UVA Rape Hoax Redux, several orders of magnitude worse.
Perhaps the Society of Professional Journalists can help light the way to higher-quality news for all concerned—if the mainstream media takes note of the reality check they’ve just been served.
[CORRECTION]: VentureBeat is an independent news site and The Verge is owned by Vox Media.