I opened my inbox and saw an email from a reporter for a New Orleans newspaper. “I came across your name today while researching an article,” he wrote. I assumed he was writing an article about online harassment and had reached out to me because I was a budding researcher in the field and a New Orleans native. I was excited that a local newspaper was interested in the topic, and flattered that the reporter had reached out to me. Then I kept reading:
“….about a fairly unusual incident on [my mother’s street] this weekend. A hoax call about a threat at a home there prompted a large police response,” I recognized this immediately as the harassment tactic known as ‘swatting,’ born out of the online gaming community.
I felt my face go very, very flush, and I felt my chest get very, very tight; everything seemed to get very, very heavy.
“After searching public records,” the email continued, “I discovered that the home targeted appears to be registered in your mother’s name, and from there I found your websites — which overlap in interests with some of the other female designers who have been targeted in swatting incidents in the recent past.”
I stopped reading after that.
My mom had been swatted and it was my fault.
Swatting is a “prank” in which a person places a call to the victim’s local police department, saying a violent crime has occurred, often involving hostages, so the SWAT team will show up and bust down their door. It’s happened to a few female game developers, and a games store in New Jersey during an event.
I called my mom right away, still staring at the email. She was so excited that I had called. She had so much news; my cousin had gotten a new job, and my sister had started dating someone new. But she didn’t mention the swatting. I cut her off five minutes into our conversation. “Mom,” I asked, “did the SWAT team come to your house?” She laughed and said it was a harmless prank by some hooligan. She told me a bunch of very attractive young men in gear came to her house to look around. She probably offered them wine, because that’s the kind of hospitable Southern mother I have.
“Mom,” I started again, “Have you heard of Gamergate?” She stopped laughing.
She got deadly silent when I told her what swatting was, and about the online harassment campaigns against feminists on Twitter perpetrated by a group called Gamergate. She asked what we could do in terms of legal action, and I told her probably nothing. Local police stations don’t track incoming calls and that’s where the SWAT team had been notified. Even if the number had been tracked, it was probably from an iPad (a regular swatting tactic) or a dummy number.
My mom asked what I had said to make people so angry, and what I had done to upset strangers so badly.
I’ve never felt worse about myself.
I had spent the past six months researching online harassment and how it works, but that hadn’t answered any questions of how to stop it while maintaining an active online presence, and without making your accounts private. As of now, the only real way to avoid being contacted by strangers (which opens the door to harassment) is to make your account private, but there should be a middle ground. The idea that to be safe from online harassment a person has to make their account private is akin to the idea that to be safe from rape a woman should not walk home alone at night. The problem is security in the system, not vulnerability in the user, so I’d been researching ways to safely (and publicly) interact online.
When I realized that there are very few systems in place for protecting people from online harassment, and the systems that do exist (like Block Together, which allows users to share block lists, or robust privacy settings that a user has to manually and painstakingly seek out on Facebook) are just scratching the surface, I decided to come up with a solution myself. I tried to come up with more advanced filter settings than “public” or “private” for Twitter and other social media sites, to protect users while allowing them to stay visible.
Apparently someone hadn’t liked my work. Every tweet I’d ever written about online harassment flashed through my mind as I tried to figure out what in particular I had said to piss someone off enough that they’d target my mother, and who it could have been.
It’s very hard to determine who’s harassing you online, unless the harassment comes from a single user and happens consistently, but that’s not usually how it works online. More often, online harassment is perpetrated by a mob. Brianna Wu, head of development at games studio Giant SpaceKat, has been harassed and threatened with rape and murder on Twitter, but not much has been done because the harassment is coming from a large number of users, who are difficult to track and stop. Online harassment techniques are incredibly different from offline harassment, and law enforcement is not yet used to dealing with it. Legally, it’s hard to prove the actionable threats of someone saying to another person “I’m going to kill you” online. It’s hard to get court-ordered documents to track people down for harassing online, and laws vary from state to state, so it’s necessary to know where the threat originated to know how to proceed.
I called the reporter who had originally informed me about the “prank” against my mother and asked him to give me all of the details he could.
The call came in to my mother’s local precinct, not 911. This is the norm for swatting calls — most local precincts don’t record calls, so there is no way to trace the “prank.” The caller, a male, said he had shot his girlfriend, barricaded himself in the house, was heavily armed, and his girlfriend’s daughter was in house with him, currently alive. He was planning to shoot any police who approached the house.
He gave my mother’s address, and he hung up.
The local precinct thought this was highly unusual — there had never been a domestic abuse call from that address before. They wondered whether it was a real call or a prank. But given the intensely violent nature of the call, and the potential hostage situation, the SWAT team was deployed.
Their armored vehicle arrived on my mother’s street at around ten at night and the SWAT team deployed, surrounding her house. My mother’s neighbors came out, some were confronted, and told to put their hands up in the air.
Still unsure if the call had been real or fake, the police called my mother’s house phone. My mother didn’t answer.
They decided to call one more time.
This time she answered. They asked if she was okay; she was.
If she hadn’t answered, they would have broken down the door, thrown my mother to the ground and violently searched the house.
But she answered her phone. And instead, she opened her door, and the SWAT team calmly searched her house, found nothing, and left.
It was a prank, they decided.
As the reporter recounted all of this to me, I was living my research in real time. I was well-versed in the mechanics of a prank like this, but that didn’t abate the anxiety attacks I was having.
I’m a user-experience designer and design researcher for a very large technology company. That means I interview people about specific problems with certain tech products they use, and then I design solutions. But my fascination with the way people interact with technology and with each other doesn’t end when I leave work. I spend a lot of my free time observing user trends online, and I write down my observations. This leads me to notice digital patterns, such as hashtags that will be trending when they haven’t yet, and interaction patterns like how people create cliques online in spaces that don’t support that kind of socializing, like Twitter.
This is how I first noticed Gamergate in August of 2014.
There had been a trend growing for a while, especially in the indie games scene, but spilling over into mainstream games and games journalism. The idea of the young, white, male “gamer” was dead; everyone plays games now. If your mom plays candy crush and solitaire, she’s a gamer. If you’re a fan of Kim Kardashian Hollywood, you’re a gamer. And women now outpace men in playing and consuming games.
This shift in gamer demographics didn’t sit well with some people. There was still this idea that games were and should be a specific thing, talked about in a specific way, reviewed in a specific fashion and played by specific people. Tensions were already high with this territorial sentiment popping up all over the Internet, and then game developer and designer Zoe Quinn’s ex posted a scathing, harassing rant online in which he made false allegations about her sex life, her game development, and their relationship. He painted her as a conniving, cheating girlfriend, and credited her supposed affair with a games journalist as the reason for the success of her game, Depression Quest. With this act of online harassment and the anti-woman conspiracy theory it contained, Gamergate was born.
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