For Twitter users, the #CNNBlackmail flap has been hard to miss. Angry Trump supporters, furious that the network “forced” the originator of the Trump-wrestling-CNN GIF to apologize even though it didn’t, fixated on a single line in the story posted to CNN’s KFILE: “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should [his remorsefulness] change.” Cue the angry mobs that targeted not just the reporter of the story with death threats, but his wife and parents.
But for me, this all looked depressingly familiar. A mostly far-right swarm of Twitter users caterwauling about free speech, memes, and ethics in journalism? We’ve been here before.
Many of the same tactics and major players that made names for themselves in GamerGate—from Mike Cernovich to Weev—are being used to push a wide-scale harassment campaign against CNN.
In August of 2014 Eron Gjoni, the ex-boyfriend of Zoë Quinn, a game developer, posted a lengthy screed in which he falsely accused her of illicitly securing favorable reviews for her game. This touched off a tidal wave of abuse directed at her. At first, it all seemed like so many of the seasonal storms of harassment that women in tech are subjected to. Critic Anita Sarkeesian, veteran game developer Jennifer Hepler, and tech evangelist Adria Richards all had their turns as the monster-of-the-week for reactionary internet trolls heaping rape/death threats and slander upon them.
But the abuse around Quinn rapidly metastasized into something larger that attacked several people at once, and brought old targets like Sarkeesian back to the fore (she was eventually forced to flee her own home after detailed, specific threats were made). Using the fig-leaf provided by the false accusation about reviews, the attackers conjured a scandal about gaming journalism to justify their fixation on the female game developers and feminist critics they so hated. They called it #GamerGate.
This movement lasted for months, and constituted a new form of both online harassment and right-wing activism. Though GamerGate putatively drew its adherents from across the political spectrum, they would constellate around hatred of “political correctness” and feminism, and ally themselves with conservative and extreme-right voices.
GamerGate has mostly faded as a discrete force, but it was folded into what’s now become popularly known as the “alt-right” on Twitter. Many GamerGaters went on to become fervent Trump supporters, attracted to what they saw as his congenial hatred for the left and its “identity politics.” For the most prominent targets of GamerGate it isn’t over either, by the way, as Zoë Quinn’s moving personal essay “August Never Ends” attests to. The same people are still there, doing the same things they always have: spamming their targets with abuse, hounding their steps no matter how they try to move on with their lives.
Meanwhile the abusers have graduated to bigger, worse things.
This brings us back to #CNNBlackmail.
The unfolding “scandal” followed a familiar pattern. A pre-existing angry mob was mad online at a single person who they used as a stand-in for a cause célèbre. A fig-leaf of moral justification was found that could justify that rage. They gave it a name. Then they proceeded to do the very thing they accused their targets of doing. CNN threatened to dox someone, according to the Make America Great Again crowd. He was only 15! It was just a GIF! A corporation is bullying an ordinary American!
Fake or play up a moral outrage. Use that to justify pummelling the alleged offender with abuse. Rinse and repeat.
However poorly chosen the words were in that CNN article, no one was actually doxed. Instead, in response, CNN employees were doxed by their critics on 4chan and as a result they and their families have been subject to all manner of threats. This has been either scrupulously ignored or outright celebrated by the #MAGA crowd on Twitter, along with the wagon train of anti-Semitism that has followed along from people spewing the same hashtags.
This, too, echoes GamerGate agitprop, which routinely featured anti-Semitic imagery. Back then, many claimed it was mere ironic provocation, meant to upset people but nothing more. I never believed that, but these days even that pretense has been unceremoniously dropped.
Still, pretense matters. All of the MAGA trolls are claiming moral outrage, yet it’s difficult to square the fact that they’re all so performatively furious about CNN “threatening to dox” someone when their movement is so gleefully doxing others. Indeed, the president himself has singled out ordinary American citizens in such a way that has led to them being abused—the MAGA crowd remains silent on that, unwilling to even attempt to square that circle.
Many of the #CNNBlackmail boosters are, after all, old hands at this sort of thing.
Known Nazi, convicted hacker, and erstwhile GamerGater Andrew Auernheimer, posted his call-to-arms on The Daily Stormer:
“We are going to track down your parents. We are going to track down your siblings. We are going to track down your spouses. We are going to track down your children.”
Auernheimer, known as Weev online, once called GamerGate “the biggest siren bringing people into the folds of white nationalism.”
Meanwhile Mike Cernovich, an alt-right cheerleader, and major booster of the #CNNBlackmail hashtag, came to prominence during GamerGate.
One rallying cry posted to 4chan, which echoes the moral language of the #CNNBlackmail hashtag and dubbed “Operation: Autism Storm,” is eerily similar to point-by-point manifestos that appeared in the early days of GamerGate, which aimed to “destroy” media platforms like Gawker and Vox.
The self-evident moral hypocrisy from people who seem united by relishing in immoral behavior is another characteristic of this GamerGate-style reactionary movement. People who will think nothing of filling your social media with bigoted invective, and who call CNN’s doxing victims “sewer rats,” turn around and mount a moral high horse when they feel they’ve been wronged. It’s a performance, meant to make them look good for the cameras and unite the group around a shared purpose that justifies continued assault.
After all, the Reddit troll isn’t 15 years of age. He’s middle-aged. The former was made up, whole cloth, by people who knew it to be untrue and spread it into the water of right-wing Twitter. The claim was even amplified on Fox News and on Twitter by the president’s son, Don Jr.
Like the false claims about Quinn, it became so commonplace as to be widely believed, and even those of us tasked with sorting fact from fiction furthered the spread of the lie by having to debunk it. This is part of what both GamerGate and many MAGA trolls wish to do when they spread memes: distort reality and make the truth negotiable. With no common facts to be agreed upon, all that’s left is endless online warfare. Which suits them just fine.
The lies serve another purpose, as they did in the earliest manifestations of Big Lie fascism in the 20th century: promoting the ideas that must be true to justify extreme action. Thus the lie that the Reddit troll was a mere 15 years old becomes gospel because it cements CNN’s image as a bully picking on the weak, which stiffens the resolve of those who wish to heap abuse on CNN’s staff.
Such tactics know no political allegiance, but they have been used to spectacular effect in the last few years by an online extreme-right that has benefitted from social media platforms’ unwillingness to rein in their behavior, capitalizing mightily on years of Fox News-style outrage culture. The PizzaGate and Seth Rich conspiracies attract the same crowd, using the same tactics of promoting fear, doubt, and uncertainty while whipping up a mob. Indeed, PizzaGate almost ended in bloodshed.
That grisly reality puts the lie to the thin veneer of moral superiority that such groups justify their actions with.
GamerGaters thrived on casting feminists who worked in the video game industry as enemies oppressing gamers and gamer culture, yet it was GamerGate that made the lives of countless videogame developers a misery, scared people away from making new games, and attacked countless ordinary gamers.
One can see this same hypocritical strategy writ large in the #CNNBlackmail narrative, which pits “ordinary Americans” against the “fascist MSM,” even as these same righteous tribunes of the common man are actually making the lives of ordinary people worse.
This is now the reality of politics in our permanently online world, Potemkin morality uniting a swarm into a distributed, leaderless network that commits immoral acts. Combatting it requires us to keep faith with the truth, and recognize their shallow ethics for what they really are. A mere tactic.