When the internet chases you from your home

By | August 25, 2019

Sarah Jeong writes:

On the night of Aug. 15, 2014, Zoë Quinn was out having a drink with some friends in San Francisco when her phone began to blow up with messages. Something was exploding on the internet — a strange, incoherent maelstrom of outrage that would take over her life. Ms. Quinn, a 27-year-old video game developer, lived in Boston and was in San Francisco only to visit, but the visit turned into exile.

“I never went home from San Francisco,” she told me.

What started that night would eventually be called Gamergate. Its catalyst was a blog post written by an ex-boyfriend, accusing her of sexual promiscuity. Within days, nude photographs of her were circulating on the internet alongside commentary and speculation about her weight, her looks, her genitalia.

Ms. Quinn’s cybersecurity had been lax when everything started happening. Her personal Tumblr was defaced and she was locked out of her own account. Her phone number was passed around, and she received harassing calls, as did her father. But her physical safety quickly became the most pressing issue.

During the Boston Marathon bombings the previous year, Ms. Quinn had added her name and address to a public spreadsheet of people who were offering their homes as a place to stay if they had been displaced. This act of altruism looked stupid in hindsight.

“I started getting texts with pictures of the outside of the apartment,” Ms. Quinn said. “It became pretty clear pretty immediately that people were there, people were openly tweeting about hanging out and staking the place out and waiting for me.”

There were posts with details about her former neighborhood. Texts with pictures of where she lived alongside pictures of guns. A tweet from the yet-relatively-unknown Mike Cernovich — now a figurehead of the alt-right — about how he had hired a private investigator to look into her.

Ms. Quinn was not the only person to be chased out of her home by Gamergate. Days later, the feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian left her home after receiving a series of explicit death and rape threats that included her home address and her parents’ home address. Two months later, someone posted the home address of the game developer Brianna Wu on 8chan. She and her husband fled their house and didn’t return for days. (Around the same time, the Game Developers Conference received a bomb threat over an award that Ms. Sarkeesian had won, and a mass shooting threat at Utah State prompted her to cancel a speech.)

When Gamergate happened five years ago, it all seemed so outrageous that many people did not believe it was real. (To this day, Ms. Quinn is accused of faking her own harassment.) But in 2019, the bizarre mix of conspiracy theory, internet harassment and the rallying cry against “social justice warriors” and “political correctness” is all too familiar. By the time Christine Blasey Ford’s family was forced to flee their home because of death threats — spurred on by viral lies on Facebook — the pattern was well established. [Continue reading…]

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