The internet, we’ve all been told, is this mass democratizing conversation within a big virtual park. Anyone is allowed to participate (sort of)!
We are told it’s an intangible space where people can safely share their opinions, innermost thoughts, and pornography (again, sort of). The internet is a place where people can congregate, form communities, escape the burdens of everyday life, and most of all, be heard.
Of course, this is mostly bullshit, and that’s why I chose to disable comments on my site. It’s true that the internet can perform an important function as a communicative tool, connecting loved ones anywhere in the world, sharing vital information across networks for political or social purposes, and empowering people who so rarely are given a voice in everyday life to find strength in numbers. However, what the fine print reveals is that the same uneven power dynamics that exist in the real world also exist online. What is no longer acceptable to say in public has been cloaked behind an impenetrable wall of anonymity, while the attitudes that ignite this vile, often criminal, behaviour still permeate our society.
The racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic and otherwise hateful systems of values that impoverish and disenfranchise people in the real world are actively embodied by venomous, hostile and cowardly internet bullies. Does this mean I think the internet makes people worse? Well, not necessarily. But I do think that platforms can be designed in such a way that online communication exacerbates the worst parts of our natures. Ian Bogost wrote that the internet is “as much a thing we do as it is an infrastructure through which to do it. And that thing we do that is the internet, it’s pockmarked with mortal regret.”
It may be that what these people do and say would be largely understood as unseemly by the so-called “silent majority” (the existence of which I’m less and less sure about). But as much as I would like to drag these fuckers out in public and humiliate them, I doubt much would actually be done about them. The additional problem—one that governments around the world are only now starting to contend with—is a cultural misunderstanding that what happens online can affect real life, and that the two are in fact, dangerously, one and the same.
People who microcosmically embody the belief systems and conspiracy theories of violent right-wing ideologues, like a litany of Fox News commentators all deeply invested in defending their stakes of Videogame Culture Turf, have both the motives and means to act on these beliefs in very real, very harmful ways. They doxx people. They mine and post sensitive information. They use personal information, including phone numbers and home addresses, to incite physical attacks. Many will actually spread misinformation and plant “false flags” while simultaneously disavowing any and all responsibility to their victims, while many more swear up and down that all this must have been faked for attention. This is hair-raising, illegal shit that crosses all ethical boundaries over and above anything their victims may have done to, in their own fucked-up code of ethics, “deserve” punishment. It’s meant to not only destroy a person’s life, but to terrorize and intimidate anyone else who might want to occupy that same turf.
And yet, “It’s just the internet, man”. Don’t feed the trolls, just ignore it. It will all just go away!
Well, that’s only true if targets of this kind of abuse—almost universally women, POC, queer people and other oppressed groups—are good and quiet and always keep their heads down. It’s only true if we’re seen but not heard, unable to challenge ideas or express even a minor degree of criticism. And even then, we are still expected to endure perpetual casual objectification, underestimation of our capabilities, and stonewalling in terms of our social and economic opportunities. We’re expected to just endure it, perfectly, and never falter. Never show that we’re human. Now, just imagine being in a relationship with someone like this, always finding fault, always ready to pillory and belittle you, to hold power over you. To let you know who’s boss around here.
This kind of abuse doesn’t always coalesce out of comment sections on the internet, but just a cursory glance at the comment section of almost any website will reveal just the most superficial aspect of this petty, churlish and bitter behaviour. A comment section doesn’t generally add to any supposed conversation most of the time—I can think of very few examples that do, like The Toast. Comment sections mostly serve to misdirect the conversation away from the original context of the work, and to reframe the discussion around the commenters themselves, so they may expound on something irrelevant at best, and corrosively hateful at worst.
Commenting on the internet—especially commenting meant to insincerely troll, or very sincerely damage and offend—is the easiest thing a person can do. Insulting a stranger takes very little creativity or effort, with most of the worst offenders reaching for the most standard insults they can muster to do the most damage, especially if their target is a woman or visible minority. Allowing a platform for this kind of thing contributes nothing of value to anybody, and in the worst case scenario it might actually leave someone badly hurt in a way no one can see. This is all while reconstituting noxious ideas and turning a “free space” for conversation into a tightly controlled space for emotional and intellectual manipulators.
Popular Science decided to nix comments on its site last year, which was kind of a subversive move considering many news websites treat comment sections like free content generators. In justifying their decision, they cited a study led by Professor Dominique Brossard at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that demonstrated even a small percentage of “fractious” comments can wrongfully skew perception of a story. In the short post by Suzanne LaBarre, she sums up Popular Science’s rationale for hitting the disable button on their own site, writing:
“A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to ‘debate’ on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.”
The effect that a blustering comment can have, no matter how insubstantial and unfounded, can actually do more to persuade—or at least silence—than a well-researched and supported piece of science reporting can. If loud and peevish-enough rhetoric can actually do work to dismantle genuine scientific inquiry in the minds of readers, it’s not hard to see what effect it can have on even more vulnerable ideas and the people who champion them in our public discourse.
You may be asking why I don’t just moderate comments, then. I could still allow comments on my site if I only deleted the nasty ones. Well, I could, but then I’d have to subject myself to discouraging and disparaging obloquy and, frankly, I’d like to keep hold onto my mettle as long as I can while writing about this stuff. It might be inevitable, but I don’t want to be pushed out of my own work prematurely if I can help it.
And just as frankly, I have absolutely no obligation to allow comments in what amounts to my professional space. I mean, this site is literally my domain, and I owe it to no one to add or remove any features that I don’t want to. That is not, despite what some First Amendment-thumpers might protest, a form of censorship. (Oh, and guess what? This is the internet, and I’m not American. The First Amendment means nothing to me.) No one, in their own private space, is required to listen to that bluster. I can’t legally stop anyone from thinking awful thoughts or expressing them elsewhere, but it’s my right not to allow it here. I still would like to have engaged conversation around my work, and I’m able to get this via other means, both in private and in public. But I cannot rely on a comment section to faithfully produce that and not just drive valuable voices away, including my own. I never thought I’d say this, but Fark news founder Drew Curtis hit the nail on the head when he chose to ban misogyny in the Fark forums:
“I view Fark as not a country with a government but a house party,” he said. “I’m glad everyone came to my house party but if you insult the other guests, the host, [crap] on the food, argue that the furniture sucks, want to tell everyone about how cool the other house party is down the road, well then we’ll show you the door. Go have all the free speech you want out in the street.”
This explanation comes on the heels of yet another harassment campaign against relatively famous indie game developer Zoe Quinn, over an unsubstantiated conflict of interest with games press. You can read her post about it here, but I won’t linger too much because I don’t want to discuss the details of it. Other than the fact that what’s happening to her and her supporters is dehumanizing and indefensible, there is no reason to discuss the impetus here. It doesn’t fucking matter, because the truth is that any non-cis-man in her position is going to be treated like public property, like their lives and bodies are up for grabs. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: these miscreants doing this aren’t doing this for “justice” or “ethics” or whatever other pretext they trot out. This is about control. This is about putting people in their place. The idea that any of these harassers might claim the moral high-ground for their actions is bald-faced bullshit to thinly veil the obvious joy they derive from doing them. They like witch-hunting people they perceive as unwelcome, and they love being able to couch that nativist belligerency in lofty language about “journalistic integrity.”
The double-speak is clear as fucking day, because if they cared about “journalistic integrity,” and not just misogyny-laden voyeuristic intrigue, they’d be going after journalists, as Jim Sterling pointed out. If they cared about integrity in games writing or in games at all, these campaigners would be much more worried about nepotistic and discriminatory hiring practices, the exploitation of both creative and manufacturing employees, the endemic corporate influence on editorial practices, among other things. There certainly wouldn’t be a campaign dedicated to scapegoating one indie developer.
It’s a shitshow but despite everything, I still want to write about games. Why? I don’t know. I guess I love them. I don’t really see myself as a journalist, although I’ve been called that, and for well over a year and a half (actually I lost count) I’ve only had the barest participation at major gaming outlets. Certainly, if you want to gain some perspective on why this hateful comment- and forum-culture exists, just look at the structural obstacles that keep certain voices underrepresented at the highest levels of this industry (and God help those that actually attain that visibility), and you’ll see how these biases are constantly being systemically confirmed.
Consciously or unconsciously, that’s what these bullies are protecting. I don’t even want to call them “trolls,” because they’re being totally earnest behind all the fabrication, manipulation and misinformation. They are desperate to conserve something: a social pecking order. This is an outrage driven by rancorous insecurity and jealousy. They want this industry treacherous and unfair, and they want the people whose bodies and lives to which they believe they are entitled to fail. They want us lowly and disempowered and scared into absolute silence. The second that we achieve something they believe we shouldn’t have—that by virtue of birthright, they should have and they do not—that’s the second they get territorial. And that’s why, if the dogs of war want to take to this corner of the park, they’ll find themselves muzzled.
The simplest way to not read the comments is to just not have them at all.