TrevorPresiloski
On Blacklists, Censorship & Twitter
November 25th, 2014

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Oh Christ, another Gamergate (GG) article? Isn’t that so last month?

Probably. But I did want to talk about GamerGate, considering that I have written about video games and media coverage in the past on here, and arts and media criticism is one of the things that I “do” on here. It scratches a particular itch in my brain, and I’ve found I haven’t been able to avoid all the coverage cropping up on the web these days.

I wanted to touch on recent events and this will probably be a kickoff to discussing other stuff relating to GamerGate.

BACKGROUND

In response to online harassment, Randi Harper, a coder who goes by the Twitter handle @bsdgirl, wrote up a blocking program that serves as a mass blocker of accounts on Twitter relating to GamerGate. Per her own website, she made it because “as more social campaigns use Twitter as their basis for communications, [individually blocking users] becomes less effective. While it’s suitable for use against a single harasser, it’s useless against a large number of accounts targeting a single user. These tweets needed to be stopped before they land in the user’s mentions.”

The GG Auto Blocker was touted as a tool to assist with harassment by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), a professional organization for those in the game development industry, founded in 1994. They boast a membership of 12,000 and have chapters all over the world.

That’s where things went a little sideways. The Blocker, upon further scrutiny, highlighted a number of problems. The first being that the algorithim for the Blocker wasn’t exactly the most fine-tuned. A number of organizations that have had nothing to do with online harassment were included on the Blocker’s “blacklist”, including KFC and the book publisher Penguin, as well as several indie game dev companies.

This resulted in an abrupt about-face from the IGDA, who yanked the link to the GG Auto Blocker, along with offering a mea culpa from IGDA executive director Kate Edwards. Unfortunately, this came after the chair of the Puerto Rico chapter of IGDA, Roberto Rosario, was notified that his account was on the GG Auto Blocker blacklist and threatened resignation.

Finally, there have been claims that someone affiliated with IGDA was involved with the creation of the GG AutoBlocker, although the person in question, Donna Prior, has a background in community management and social media, rather than coding, and the “damning” Facebook message is ambiguous at best.

 

It should be noted that in light of the backlash, Randi Harper opted to rename the list of blocked twitter accounts from “blacklist” to something a little more benign sounding. I’m going to stick with the term blacklist for the rest of this article.

WHY THE BLOCKER IS OKAY

I get the idea behind the Blocker. People should have the ability to control their Twitter feeds and being able to block out a torrent of Tweets they don’t want to read is useful. I’ve bitched about bot spam before, and I can see how getting several hundred people Tweeting at you could make one’s Twitter account useless, or how someone could feel stressed from Twitter harassment.

There’s also nothing wrong with wanting to share it publicly or believing that someone Tweeting at you is harassing you. Free speech does not equal a free audience, and being able to extricate oneself from being a part of an audience they don’t wish to be a part of, whatever their reasons for doing so, is not wrong or bad.

That pretty much sums up why the Blocker is a good idea. But I want to tack on something else very quickly, as it relates to this. First, a word from @Popehat:

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People claiming that Harper is committing libel or defamation or harassment need to re-read what precisely constitutes any of those things. Defamation (of which libel is a part) requires some sort of statement to have been made that damages an individual’s reputation. That damage to one’s reputation needs to be demonstrable and no, simply being blacklisted does not constitute “libel.”

Secondly, the IGDA, while they did say that the blacklist contained the “worst offenders”, a claim that is demonstrably false, I’m not necessarily sure that there’s a case for defamation there, either. Again, you would still have to demonstrate damage to your reputation, which, for a lot of people operating under online handles, would be dubious. Secondly, IGDA would have a pretty solid defense, in that they were operating in “good faith.” By fixing things as quickly as they did, they can argue that they did not intend to defame anyone and rectified the issue once it was brought to their attention.

People are welcome to their opinion, of course, and are welcome to try filing lawsuits. I just think they’re barking up the wrong tree.

WHY THE BLOCKER IS NOT OKAY

Oh, where to begin?

The biggest issue is that the blocker, specifically, does not appear to be well made. That accounts with zero tweets on them can be blacklisted for harassment seems counter-intuitive. How do you blacklist someone for harassment if they haven’t engaged with a single, solitary soul? Or what about accounts that have tweeted, like KFC and Penguin,  but have never engaged in harassment? Online harassment, I mean. KFC regularly engages in colonic harassment whenever I eat a DoubleDown…

If I were a coder, I would personally never release a program or tool that hadn’t been thoroughly and rigorously tested. Maybe I’m misinformed on that but it seems you’re opening yourself up to mistakes like this. Why cause more headaches? Why cause positive negative reception due to honest mistakes or bugs?

Secondly, the blocker is a form of censorship. I’m aware that Harper denies that the Blocker is a form of censorship on the FAQ section of her website.  For the record, I’m in complete agreement with what she says on there. No one *has* to listen to someone else. Again, free speech, not free audience.

But the problem runs deeper than blocking out the voice of one (or more) individuals. Again, IGDA boasts a membership of approximately 12,000 members, per Wikipedia. According to census data by the Game Developer Research (GDR) website, as of 2007 there’s approximately 39,700 individuals developing or publishing games in the USA (EDIT: per a 2014 report from the Entertainment Software Association, there are approximately 42,000 people working directly for a game company in the States.) Put it another way, the total number of IGDA members equates to roughly 30% of the total working professionals in the United States. Probably less than that as I’m sure the industry has grown in the past 7 years.

I’m trying to illustrate that 12k people is a huge number for this industry. Having the IGDA come out and endorse a blacklist tool can have an impact on independent studios, emerging young professionals and people who have done nothing wrong.

There has already been at least one self-identified feminist who has become a victim of the blocker, and there are numerous other individuals involved in game development or journalism that have been blocked as well.

Now, when going onto Twitter, individuals will have to start worrying about what they say, but also about who they associate with.

Harper herself has been dismissive towards Rosario because “he should know better.” To me, Harper seems to have veered from wanting to avoid abuse to wanting to block out opinions that don’t conform to her worldview.

 

Especially when you look at someone posting their attempts at getting taken off of the blacklist. It’s hard to see how the tweets that were referenced in the emails (and listed on the right side in the image linked) constitute abuse. The Google group that Harper has set up to deal with blacklist appeals also support this claim — there are several examples of people being rejected for simply tweeting objectionable views using the GamerGate tag. They weren’t targeting anyone, but merely expressing their views.

How does that constitute harassment? How can you claim your goal is to halt online harassment when the only valid complaint is that they aren’t agreeing with you? This is an issue, because, despite  a discussion going on in the Google group to try and hammer out a policy document, every single user that has been rejected thus far has either lied about their account or  their behaviour was “close enough to direct harassment to predict future harassment.”

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This is merely a screen capture meant to break up the text-heavy nature of this post and should not be indicative of anything.

Especially when you’re running around with a file that was literally called “blacklist.” There’s a reason why I chose to use the word blacklist throughout this article, and it is because I am skeptical of Harper’s intentions, especially after browsing the Google group.

 

Again, I’m not advocating harassment of any kind and I 100% support efforts to filter out harassment. But when you’ve created a set of guidelines that can encompass any form of communication, be it “rude” harassment, “sealioning”, or using a hashtag I again have to wonder what the intentions are.

You have an environment where one can be blacklisted for not saying anything, for saying something offensive or for being polite about it. They can be blacklisted for tweeting at someone, or for not tweeting at someone. Does that sound sane, reasonable or fair? Should a professional organization such as IGDA be promoting a tool?

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As well, Harper’s attempts at trolling her critics also seem to indicate that her actions are at odds with her stated intentions. If the goal is to cut down on abuse, why bait people into responding to you? There’s nothing wrong with being antagonistic with people, but you can’t try to pick fights on Twitter and then try and proclaim yourself arbiter of what is/isn’t acceptable behaviour and not have people think it stinks.

I support the free exchange of ideas, particularly online. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” is a famous quotation that I’m very fond of. People should be allowed to express their opinion in a thoughtful manner (read: without saying they’d like to kill someone or that they like the video game Bubsy: Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind.)

On a related note, earlier this month, another group called Women, Action & the Media announced a collaboration with Twitter to deal with online harassment. In their press release (linked above), they make a claim “that women overall are disproportionately targeted by the most severe forms of online abuse.”

Which is untrue. The Pew study says that women are more likely to specific forms of severe forms of harassment, specifically sexual harassment and stalking, while they remain roughly on par with men for physical threats and sustained harassment.

The study also goes on to state that men are more likely to be targets of online harassment than women, and are more likely to receive threats of physical violence than women. It also goes on to state that women are more likely to be threatened via social media, while men are more likely to be threatened through online gaming.

It should be noted that the stats are pretty close, outside of sexual harassment, and I think that does speak to gender issues, so for those about to say that Sarkeesian or others are completely full of shit…I’d hold off for a little bit.

But what is concerning for me is that even in a press release, there’s a formulation of a narrative. For me, the takeaway from the Pew study was that online harassment is a huge problem for everyone, it’s just that the exact nature of the harassment changes depending on gender. It’s also telling that, despite the press release being rife with links backing up what they were saying, an actual link to the Pew study was absent.

I’m not sure I can support the idea of online censors, regardless of who they are or how well intentioned they are, looking to root out language or terminology that they find objectionable. I understand that Twitter is not a public entity and that they can run their service however they wish, but as a free speech advocate, I personally can’t encourage it.

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