Sock Puppets and the Depravity of #GamerGate
October 17, 2014
I have avoided writing much on the nightmare that is #GamerGate because I had little direct experience to contribute, and I hoped that it would die a natural death. But today I found something that has prompted me to speak out. A sock puppet.
Before we get to sock puppets…
A campaign of harassment against women in the video games industry. In the beginning, two specific targets were an independent games developer and a feminist video game critic. The indie games developer, Zoe Quinn, was the victim of an ex-boyfriend who posted a jealous rant against her, making accusations that she benefitted in her work by sleeping with key people in the gaming industry. It was quickly demonstrated that she did not benefit as was suggested. Nonetheless, the allegations from the ex-boyfriend served as cover for some to cry for “greater integrity in video games journalism” under the GamerGate hashtag.
The second early target of GamerGate harassment was Anita Sarkeesian who posted a video in her series “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” at about the same time that Quinn’s ex-boyfriend posted his jealous rant. Sarkeesian’s work was funded by a kick starter, and the video series examines the overwhelmingly sexist portrayal of women in video games. Her objective is to encourage video game developers to consider fresh, more creative storylines and story-telling techniques. Unfortunately, many in the gaming community have interpreted her analysis as an attack on the “hard-core gamer” demographic comprised of young, straight, white males.
Since then, others have been targeted as well – people who speak up in defense of the women being harassed, as well as other game developers and gaming critics, and soon targets included people who spoke out about GamerGate. Among those who supported the GamerGate identity, some perpetuated the contortion of saying use of the tag was really about a desire to see increased ethics and integrity in journalism. Despite very clear records of posts on fora including IRC, 4chan, and reddit planning the harassment, these GamerGate supporters were saying that GamerGate had nothing to do with misogyny or racism, and that in fact there were many women and people of color who also supported GamerGate.
What’s a Sock Puppet?
A sock puppet is a fake account created in order to allow someone to adopt an online identity. Often the fake account enables a user to participate in the harassment technique referred to as “astroturfing”. In the two months that GamerGate has been roiling the internet, I’ve encountered lots of sock puppets. Or at least, I’ve encountered dozens of twitter accounts with few tweets, few followers, few verifiable personal details, few photos or videos, and a peculiar predominance of tweets about one subject, specifically GamerGate.
Early on in the use of the hashtag GamerGate, instructions were being posted on setting up sock puppet accounts for the GamerGate campaign. These sock puppets had two functions. One function was to provide a means to engage in the harassment of GamerGate targets, in large numbers, and from the safety of anonymity. The second function was to provide a veneer of identity for presumed women and people of color behind which the GamerGaters could convey their feint that GamerGate wasn’t about misogyny or racism. Those who supported GamerGate were told when they made up the fake account,
For extra class, present yourselves as normal people who sjws [social justice warriors, intended as a derogatory term] by their own standards should sympathize with, like an indian cab driver who can’t read traffic signs. (this requires extensive shitposting experience.)
It was further suggested that GamerGate supporters use #NotYourShield as a way to make the case that there were women and people of color among those who supported GamerGate, and that people who opposed GamerGate not use real women and people of color as a “shield” when talking about the straight-, white-, male-dominated demographic of the gamer community.
There are, no doubt, women and people of color who support GamerGate with their own specific motivations. But there is also no doubt that others were pretending to be women and people of color, with coaching. Here is a highlighted extract from one chat, initiated by a “#notyourshield squadmember”. Notice that “Depression Fries” indicates he (I presume it is “he”) “already joined … as a Latino” and “Bub” offers to “show up in blackface” to help #NotYourShield.
In addition to attacking people directly, the willingness of supporters of GamerGate to present themselves falsely as women and people of color is despicable.
How Do You Tell the Real People from the Posers?
When GamerGate “#NotYourShield squad members” create these fake accounts, they use celebrity pictures, cartoon avatars, or images from the internet to appropriate that fits the minority demographic they intend to exploit. They make up breezy non-substantive bios, and pretend to be new to twitter. All per instructions from the early adopters of the hashtag. With little information to draw from, it can be difficult to determine if a “new” twitter account is associated with an actual woman or person of color or if it is an imposter.
Early on in GamerGate, I decided not to engage twitter accounts that seemed to have sprung up or become active, with little authentic information, in the few weeks that GamerGate had been around. I present a very public face. If someone wanted to publicize information about me, it would take very litle skill or cleverness. As a result of how I choose to live my life, and in light of the seriousness of the harassment that has already occurred, if I am going to interact with someone on twitter, I want to have a sense that they are presenting themselves to me in good faith as well. I cannot gauge good faith for an account that has existed for a few days or weeks. So, I block the GamerGate sock puppet accounts who jump into my mentions or who attempt to enter into my discussions with others. I block all the GamerGate sock puppets. Of all alleged races, genders, orientation, religious affiliation, planetary origin, … all of them. Equally. And yet I’ve gotten called a racist and a bigot for blocking sock puppets, which today, especially makes me laugh. On those occasions, I have had fun pointing out that neither socks nor puppets are considered a protected class with respect to discrimination.
I checked in to the GamerGate hash tag just to see what the temperature was. When I stopped by, I happened to land on a post from someone whose user name was @Africa_Mission. The profile picture was a somewhat ominous-looking, hooded black man and the account name was Tyree Washington. The account seemed suspicious to me, having only 44 tweets, with #GamerGate and #notyourshield rhetoric in the bio. All of the tweets related to GamerGate, including multiple tweets referring to whites as racists and oppressors. The language of the tweets struck me as odd, with lots of “my homies”, “word” and “fo shizzle”. This account seemed like a textbook case of a sock puppet created to imitate a black person.
It turns out, whoever made the fake account named “Tyree Washington” chose badly when they appropriated a picture to use for this account. The picture belongs to Mr. Drew G. I. Hart. It was lifted from a blog post that Mr. Hart had written in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting (which I recommend in its own right: http://drewgihart.com/2012/03/25/the-hoodie-revisted-and-expanded-racialized-gaze-and-trayvon-martin). Here is the picture at the end of Mr. Hart’s blog post (with his permission).
Mr. Hart also has a twitter page, under his own name, illustrated below with his permission.
(Aside – see that pinned tweet? After all the GamerGate ugliness the last few weeks, I recommend you go there. Check out his blog on The Christian Century. I found it simultaneously thought provoking and uplifting. I say this as someone who hasn’t been inside a church in decades.)
If you want to have a first-hand sense of the depths to which some people who support GamerGate will stoop, read the Tyree Washington twitter timeline, and then read the timeline of Mr. Hart. The cartoonish caricature composed under the name “Tyree Washington” is shameful, especially when compared to the intelligent, thoughtful and upstanding man whose image someone supporting GamerGate chose to appropriate.
Supporters of GamerGate say that they are interested in integrity in journalism? That they have nothing to do with sexism or racism? Or harassment? “Tyree Washington” lays all those arguments to waste. Shame on all those who support GamerGate. Step away from the depravity, the toxic history, and the current behavior associated with GamerGate so that real conversation can occur about ethics, journalism, transparency, and the role of women and people of color in gaming and technology.
October 20, 2014 Update: Mr. Hart asked @Africa_Mission to remove the stolen picture from the profile, which @Africa_Mission has done. @Africa_Mission has replaced the profile photo with a celebrity photo. Briefly, he continued to use Mr. Hart’s photo in his posts but has subsequently deleted those posts when they were identified to him. Also, happily, @Africa_Mission has also deleted many of the most egregious posts that were on the account when I discovered it; sadly he has added new ones.
February 26, 2015 Update: I am happy that critics of GamerGate have found this article useful in pointing out that while there are no doubt actual people of varied color, gender, and orientation who supported GamerGate, sock puppet accounts were indeed created and used to attempt to show substantially greater support by those groups. I trace back these citations periodically, and have been amused at some of the GamerGater comments in response to my outing this particular puppet. In light of some of these reactions, I thought it would be good to add an update.
Once @Africa__Mission got called out, and was asked to cease and desist by the person whose picture he appropriated for his account, he eventually deleted all but two of his posts and changed his background and profile. I had originally debated adding screencaps of some of his more egregious posts, but decided that since he had essentially stopped using the account to portray a fictitious black male supporting GamerGate, I chose not to include his posting history.
What I have found amusing is that some GamerGaters looked at the now defunct account with its user name “Im a sock puppet” and assumed that was how I figured it out. The supporters of GamerGate have often not been very good at creating inauthentic sock puppet accounts. Certainly @Africa__Mission was not very good at it. But even I can give him credit that he didn’t use “Im a sock puppet” as his original user name. Thanks GamerGaters for the laugh!