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On November 28th, 2014, Moltar, a writer at the website GamerGate.me, a site dedicated to publishing GamerGate related news and editorials published an article claiming that a top level faculty member of Harvard University had considered writing an article for the site. On December 7th, 2014, that article was published. Many people on various websites, and in the comments for that article rightfully questioned its veracity. In this article, I intend to go through and look at the method it uses to keep the author’s true identity anonymous, and what that method means.

The need for using a method of anonymization for the source is well founded. Several people that have dared to get close to either side of GamerGate have been tracked down, and have lost their jobs. While professors usually have tenure, many employees in the United States are hired at-will. So while it isn’t a breach of tenure to write about GamerGate, it is well founded to have a concern for ones family or friends being targeted. I consider it to be a valid level of protection to take so as to not get caught up in the entire mess any further than need be. The method chosen works well for it, though many people that read the essay did not understand how exactly it works. In that, the author was either unheard, or misunderstood by a significant portion of people that read the essay.

The method used is similar to something called the Barium Meal Test better known as the Canary Trap, popularized by author Tom Clancy in his novel Patriot Games. The method in which it works is by selecting a number of words throughout the document, and replacing them with synonyms. This works to keep the overall meaning of the document intact, but makes it much harder to derive the original document, and thus the original author’s writing style. This is important in order to hinder writing analysis to essentially find the writer’s ‘fingerprint’ in their style and word choice.

To use a much simpler and straightforward example, consider the following text.

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Using related words, we can come up with alternatives.

The fast beige fox hurdles over the lazy hound.

An alternative could be,

The nimble tan fox hops over the lazy canine.

The effect is that the original message remains intact, but the writing style and wording is different. In a traditional counterintelligence role, seeing which version becomes public would allow those with the original document to know who leaked it, by virtue of comparing the different wording to who had the copy with that exact version. Usually over two or three paragraphs, there can be thousands of permutations. The author of The Harvard Essay had the luxury of using his entire article to do essentially that, in order to cloak his identity.

What will make it significantly more difficult for those that want to figure out who he is is that his command of the English language is such that you cannot be entirely certain which words have been replaced. Assuming that the author has sufficiently covered their tracks and has left no other traces, they have somewhere around 2,700 words to choose from. If you were to do the math on how many different synonyms could be used for each of those 2700 words, I’m pretty sure it would return a number that is large enough to sufficiently confound anyone trying to do writing analysis on the overall document.

In conclusion, it is my opinion that while many of the people that read it got angry for not coming across in plain language, you misunderstood why it was written the way it was. Yes, you should doubt and question everything, but you should also make an effort to read the entire document, and do research on the references made. I read it, and from what I can glean, it is legitimate and makes a number of solid and entirely valid points. It is a solid criticism of Anita Sarkeesian as a scholar. It also serves at least in partial as a criticism of GamerGate as a movement, both of which should be heeded. You owe it to yourself to read the entire thing if you haven’t yet. As far as what the means used to cloak the writer’s identity mean, I would say that it was a good idea, but could have been a mistake given how many people failed to see the forest for the tress. Personally, the fact that they claim to be from Harvard really is beside the point. It would not shock me if they were, either.

Is there anything I missed?

 

Author’s Edit 6:15 pm CST, Jan 3 2015:

Regarding the confusion around the Barium Meal Test example that I used,  I should explain that its more about the message being conveyed and less on the wording. In this case, being that something (the fox) is overcoming a barrier or bypassing it in some way – what the barrier is doesn’t really matter. You can theoretically make the barrier a brick wall, and it would still work to convey the message that something is jumping over or running around something else.

The descriptors are there for a few reasons, mostly maths on how many permutations it can widen to, and thus how many people this kind of thing will work against in a traditional use.

The fact that colors and speeds or anything else are attributed to them, likewise, serve the goal of increasing the number of potential different wordings of the same core message. In practice, you can change entire sentences to use entirely different wording and verbage and still retain the core message, which is the point in the article’s entire analysis.


Keith Elwood

I have been a gamer ever since I can remember, starting with the Sega Genesis and original Nintendo consoles. I graduated to frogger on an ancient IBM home PC, and then onto Sim City 2000. In 2004, I got into shooters and MMOs. I haven't looked back since. Professionally, I am certified in private security. In my spare time, I dabble in information analysis and study geopolitics. I sometimes write at my own blog at keithelwood.com.



  • webkilla

    I have read this article – and even with my own bloody masters degree it is not easy to read. A philosophy or english major would likely fare better.

    Anywho. The article is a brutal slam against Sarkeesian. If you can understand what is being said, then it will be a joy to read for any pro-GG individual.

    Likewise, the points made in the article on Sarkeesian’s purely academic merits stand out to me in the sense that very much hints that the person who wrote the article has a legit academic background and knows what he/she is talking about.

    The criticism leveled against gamergate itself is aren’t unfounded either. ‘Source’ basically says that both pro and anti-GG is often guilty of using accusations as proof and suspicions as conviction. And hell, considering how people like KoP fooled us all, then ya.

    But the stuff this person says about Sarkeesian… just… wow. For example, the bit about capitalism, where Source quotes Roemer. Source is basically pointing BTFO’ing Sarkeesian’s silly claim that capitalism leads to sexism so hard it’ll make your head spin… though you’ll likely need an MBA to understand what’s being said.

    Basically Source is pointing out that the idea of capitalist exploitation (say, game devs using T&A or damsels to sell games) is wrong – the issue, if anything, is inequal distribution of capital inputs. Basically its not the dev’s fault for adding T&A to the game, its the publisher who paid for the game who wanted the game made in a way that panders to the lowest common denominator – compare to a kickstarted game where capital inputs are from the potential costumers themselves.

    Well, I think that’s at least one way of explaining it.

    Source also talks about how moral systems are hostile to distilliation – meaning a person who accepts the world as having more moral grey areas tend to sound more reasonable than someone who talks in absolutes and black/white morality… like Anita saying capitalism = bad, or (most) games = sexist.

    Also, if you want a hilarious joke – Source says that Sarkeesian affects a Dadaist spirit. If you get it, you should understand the hilarity. If you don’t get it, watch Nostalgia Chick’s “Freddy got fingered” review for a good but simple explanation.

    also, Source completely BTFO’s Sarkeesian’s foundational claim about oppressive sexism when he he/she notes two things:

    1) Anita NEVER defines what she means by oppression – nor cites any evidence to it
    2) She NEVER defines what a proper female hero who isn’t somehow a sexist trope-carrier looks like (though that has been promised for her last video IIRC)

    Without these two points to understand the rest of her work from, nobody has any kind of reference points to understand what she’s saying… that’s Source’s point – and fucking hell if it doesn’t make sense.

    Also, anyone else here: Feel free to ask me to ‘interpret’ any other paragraph from the article. Most of the weird words can be googled. For example: Sciolistic means ‘to have only superficial knowlegde’.

    Sarkeesian exhibitis a sciolistic understanding of games and gaming culture.

  • Ryan Mo

    it’s entirely possible that this is a fair demonstration of Source’s command of the English language that holds up to the standards of a Harvard faculty member — maybe someone who is familiar with 19th century prose and radical feminism? the particular hyphenation of “racial-caste” definitely caught my eye, as did the use of the Chicago style em-dash, semicolons, and parentheses to express thoughts of varying lengths, and the adage to Heterodoxy didn’t fall on blind eyes. i didn’t miss the British spelling of “labour” compared to the American spelling of “color”, either.

    Source definitely calls out Sarkeesian’s surface level feminist analysis of game narratives, makes a tongue-in-cheek remark about her brand of criticism as “post-structuralist”. Source also tears Sarkeesian’s argument from her own quotes that an inversion of gender roles will not end sexist oppression. and in a way, Source also reminds proGG of their potential folly: dogmatizing ethics without consideration for the reality which they reside and function will only stagnate social progress. but aside from that moment of awareness, Source doesn’t really lay criticism on GG. this is a straight rip on Sarkeesian.

    beneath the Ivy League language and philosophical references is the same vitriol that passed most skeptics’ minds. it was a fun read.

    but i don’t think a method of anonymization was used for the content.

  • Anon

    Is there anything I missed?

    Yes.

    …failed to see the trees for the forest.

    It’s actually “failed to see the forest for the trees,” since we’re delving into good language here. 🙂

    Also, her criticism of Sarkeesian and McIntosh’s approach is valid, but her equating gamers with SJWs is false, flippant, condescending and based on a flawed research to boot, that she links to. I commented about this on the original article as well.

    Thanks for the information regarding anonymisation! This was a sore point for many readers (not me, though)!

  • Moltar

    Best digest of the article I’ve read anywhere. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • FontEater

    *glean, not gleam. Damn.

  • FontEater

    also, since when is “red” a synonym for “brown”?

  • Morningstar

    Also since when is “pig” synonymous with “dog”?

    The idea is not necessarily to use just synonyms, but antonyms or words with a tangential connection can also work in some cases. You could replace red with any color or dog with any animal and still achieve the same effect.

  • Nick

    Quick, lethargic and sluggish are not synonymous… was someone just looking up lazy in a thesaurus and forgot that the original adjective was ‘Quick’ because the resulting sentences are definitely different. a quick fox, is not a lethargic fox or a sluggish fox..

    Shouldn’t the editor have caught this?

  • Tanis

    It’s probable that they were using a sort of code but it also reads exactly like many post-modern essays I’ve seen. Try reading some Judith Butler or numerous other feminist books and you will see it in droves.

    Having experience with it, I certainly didn’t have much trouble understanding it but I sure saw a lot of people have that problem. I suppose one of the bigger issues was not just that it was a slurry of pomo nonsense but also that it criticized gamergate; it’s hard to pay close attention when you feel attacked, I suppose.

  • Ryan Mo

    it’s problematic because Sarkeesian’s success is rooted in her ambiguity. by offering piecemeal arguments and employing her own terminology, Sarkeesian can affect many readers who have the highest regard for gender equality and empowerment (shown by the six figure amount crowdfunded) but little understanding of the two, or an inclination to understand (Source’s first point). this isn’t to say that Sarkeesian’s videos aren’t without merit, but that her analysis leaves for much to be desired, and those unfamiliar with feminism as a social movement and critical theory inject their own conclusions.

    on second point, FemFreq wants to show that cultural consumption perpetuates sexist oppression but directs it to a community and industry that has only expanded and co-opted in the past two decades, that is also shaped by dominant cultures. that said, Sarkeesian’s light background in literary analysis and video game history (I’m being generous) has restricted her from defining the acceptable female protagonist, and i think she’s very aware of this. the unspoken message is to create dimensional female protagonists as opposed to ones that rigidly conform or reject the conventional roles.

    i think the mention of Roemer is more of a response to the notion of gender disparity in STEM fields directly contributing to sexist representation in video games, and the circumstances given (perpetuation of conventional gender roles in game narrative) is not an intrinsic injustice, but a tendency to reduce the burden of labor by applying a productive technologies and heuristics. basically, it isn’t morally wrong to pander to the lowest common denominator.

    of course that particular paragraph is murky because it responds to Sarkeesian’s murky sentiment on social systems that maintain patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism — a sentiment that is better left for radical feminist theorists and analytical philosophers of the highest academic order to elaborate on. also my Marx is really basic.

  • Nick

    Right, I understand that. But your description right above explicitly describes the term as using synonyms. Then you use it in a way that is incongruous with that definition. So either the examples were wrong, or the definition is incomplete. Or we shouldn’t trust you as a writer, and should ignore your shorthand for the wikipedia definition (a knee-jerk reaction and totally not happening in this case).

  • DynastyStar

    I didn’t hear about the article, I’ll attempt to give it a read sometime

  • webkilla

    Thanks

  • EscapeVelocity

    One of the key points of Critical Theory is that there is no impetus to provide an alternative, what would work better, what has worked in the past, what the ideal is.

    Any ideal can be perceived as oppressive, by those who do not share the ideal or fail to live up to it.

    Cultural Marxism is about tearing Western Civilization and it’s institutions, systems, & power structures/authorities down. It’s about de(con)struction. Misery is assured, either through a collapsed civilization or the implementation of a Totalitarian Marxist State.

  • Dave The Sandman

    I read the article, and as Webkilla comments its difficult to read. Id add turgid in places, and wallowing in academia-speak.

    There is a difference between being clever and being smart.

    Being clever is writing a 2700 word densely constructed criticism of Sarkeesian’s claims using complex academic arguments.

    Being smart is making the same content accessible to everyone by using clear and concise language, and splitting it into say three smaller sections which can be mentally digested easier by the average reader.

    While that article may succeed at being clever, smart it certainly ‘aint matey. Playing silly cryptography games with the content probably made things worse.

    KISS is not just “the hottest band in the world”.