#2018

Gamergate’s New Army of Bad Bitches

Brianna Wu lived through hell at the center of the online harassment scandal known as Gamergate. She figures that running for office can’t be nearly that bad.

If change can be described using the vocabulary of earthquakes, Brianna Wu has spent her last 18 months enduring the sort of seismic activity that comes with living over an active fault line. As the center of the phenomenon known as Gamergate (actually, it’s about ethics in harassing some guy’s ex-girlfriend and any people who defend her!), she faced threats on her life, on the lives of her loved ones. Bomb threats, constant harassment, challenges to her livelihood, threats on speaking engagements. Law & Order even ripped her story from the headlines. That’s how you know what’s happening to you is fucked up—when Dick Wolf decides it is.

But Gamergate’s gradual drawdown—or pivot to deplorability—left Brianna to return to relative normalcy just in time for her life to shift again. Through this country’s twist of fate, Wu would find the arc of her life bent, surprisingly, toward the public eye once more. She’d find herself running for office.

Wu, a game designer, has always been passionate about politics. She grew up in what she describes as a “right-wing family.” In college, she interned for Trent Lott while her classmates partied. In the intervening years, her views have evolved, her stances have swung left. Although she’d long ago left behind the ideology of the Rush Limbaughs or Sean Hannities of the world, until very recently, Wu hadn’t made moves to get more involved.

And then November 8 happened. On Election Night, Manhattan’s Javits Center filled with silence beneath an unshattered glass ceiling. At a bar in the theater district, two Trump voters, red-state men deep in a blue state for an auto dealers’ convention, gloated. “She’s gotta be shitting her pants,” they said to nobody, and everybody, as Florida results rolled in. Cable-news hosts reacted with shock as an election narrative that defied all polling materialized in Wisconsin, in Pennsylvania. Daughters sent their mothers texts.

Wu, like the rest of the country, was caught off guard. “I really expected to leave Hillary headquarters on Election Night and come back to my studio,” she tells The Daily Beast. “The worst-case scenario had happened. I’ve just been devastated. I had a meeting two days after Trump won. I thought, I can’t even think about making my living from a video game right now.”

That night, she asked her husband what he thought about her entering politics. He’d already stood by Wu as she dealt with Gamergate and its related aftershocks. “He said, ‘Go for it,’” says Wu.

Her campaign has been unorthodox from jump. She hasn’t gone through traditional channels, predicting, probably aptly, that they’d shuffle her to local or state office before letting her take a shot at Congress. She’s jumping from no political experience to vying for an office on Capitol Hill, taking her cue from our 45th president, Donald Trump, who has never held political office in his life. She’s making her own ads; the first one was released this week. And she’s managing the whole campaign like a startup.

She’s spent recent weeks studying up on campaign-finance law and crafting her own bootstrapped ad encouraging other women to register their distaste for the status quo by running for office.

People whose job it is to draft people for political office often cite the difficulty in convincing women that entering politics wouldn’t prove disastrous for their families. They worry about how a run could hurt their children’s education, whether it would cause their husbands stress. But not Brianna Wu. She’s not scared of what could happen to her and her family if she’s suddenly in the public eye, because the worst has already happened to her. “Gamergate taught me that I was stronger than I knew that I was,” she says. “I thought, ‘What can they do to me? Call me names? Make up stuff about me? OK, they’ve already done that.’”

Wu’s story is an extreme case of the sort of abuse facing women who run afoul of a certain type of groupthink, but there are many other examples. When I was working as the news editor at Jezebel, a few intrepid male spammers would fill our comment section with .GIF images of rape porn or animal gore every day, like clockwork. Twitter is notoriously clumsy and uneven about promoting a positive experience for its female users: When Robin Williams took his own life, his daughter was bombarded with abuse the platform seemed unable to adequately address. It took Twitter an embarrassing amount of time to ban men whose social-media raison d’être is seeking to cause pain. Martin Shkreli was booted from the platform for harassing Teen Vogue writer Lauren Duca, and then appeared on Fox Business opposite Maria Bartiromo, where he claimed he was banned for being a Republican. It seems like every few months, a prominent female voice publicly quits a social-media platform, citing nonstop male obnoxiousness that runs the gamut from being a constant low-level annoyance to a mentally deleterious barrage.

It’s not worth wasting precious seconds of life waxing philosophical about why groups of men rally online to call in bomb threats to the homes of women like Brianna Wu, or tell some intern at a woman’s website that they hope she gets raped to death with a knife, or use LexisNexis to discover the address of an old apartment of a female reporter and bombard the location with pizzas to show her they know where she once lived. Maybe they’re mad at their mothers. Maybe when young men feel useless, they direct their energy toward mayhem. Maybe they’re all Vladimir Putin. But there’s probably one thing they don’t consider when they’re plotting a group offensive against a new female target: the sort of resilience that can only come from exposure.

Wu doesn’t need to worry about what it feels like to be smeared publicly, as a politician is smeared. She’s already been through the wringer. And she’s still here, with the benefit of the hindsight that can only come from an ordeal. And now, thanks to how bad almost every social-media platform is at handling abuse, a lot of women have similar experiences.

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Perhaps the silver lining in unhinged mobs of men intent on targeting women online might be a strain of person who can take much worse than a skeptical electorate can dish out. What if Gamergate, or Russia’s bowl-cutted basement brigade working to please Dear Leader, or self-identified deplorables, in spamming women with abuse, unwittingly built an army of battle-tested bad bitches, tougher than any week of bad press, than any town-hall nutjobs, afraid of nothing? Hell hath no fury like a woman trolled.

Wu says she appreciates how many activists have pointed out the problems women face both online and in their daily lives. She’s encouraged by how visible issues she cares about have become. But women talking about issues of inequality is no longer enough. “Writing and talking about it is great, but I don’t think it’s going to get us anywhere at this point,” she says. “We need to run for office.”