On September 24th, video game developer Zoe Quinn and cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, both targets of Gamergate, testified in front of the United Nations about online harassment. The same day, the United Nations Broadband Commission released the report "Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls," which instantly sparked controversy for its claims that video games cause violence, among other things.
So do anti-harassment activists think video games cause violence? I spoke to Quinn, the founder of Crash Override Network, and Randi Harper, the creator of GG Autoblocker and founder of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, about the UN report.
"Overall, I'm disappointed in it," Quinn said to me in an email about the report. "It's an important subject that deserves to be addressed but how it's addressed matters just as much, if not more. Unfortunately, it feels like the issues with the report might have ultimately kneecapped an otherwise potentially useful resource."
The report has come under fire for its troublingly broad purview as well as its reliance on dubious sources to make controversial claims—one of which is the claim that violent video games and movies cause violence.
Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post called it, "a radical, dangerous vision for the future of the Web." Kristen Brown of Fusion took aim at how "cyber violence" was defined, saying the report "lacks a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the problems women face online as well as actionable suggestions for how to fix them."
Ken White, an attorney who frequently blogs about First Amendment issues at Popehat, has commented extensively on the report. In an interview with Motherboard, he said, "I worry that they're talking about all these categories of things and putting it under the heading of violence against women."
White says that the fact that the report is coming from the UN is all the more troubling, calling the body "increasingly a hub of frankly totalitarian countries trying to get speech restrictions passed that they can then use to suppress dissent."
"I don't think they're doing it for the benefit of women or anything else," he added.
UN report cites research about how video games are turning kids into "killing zombies"
One of the most controversial parts of the report is one that links video games to real life violence. The report says on page 48:
There is widespread representation of VAWG [violence against women and girls] in mainstream culture, including in contemporary and popular music, movies, the gaming industry and the general portrayal of women in popular media. Recent research on how violent video games are turning children, mostly boys, into 'killing zombies' are also a part of mainstreaming violence. [emphasis added]
As White and others have pointed out, the quoted phrase "killing zombies" is sourced from this extremely questionable article from 2000 that links school shootings to video games. It refers to spree killers like the Columbine shooters as "Nintendo killers," predicting a scourge of violence brought on by video games. At a later point, the article calls Pokémon a "killing game designed for toddlers beginning at 2 and 3 years old."
"I think it's terrifying when they are relying on sources that are just—and I mean this in the most pejorative way possible—crazy," said White.
Quinn suggested that a failure to work with "people actually involved in tech" could be to blame for this and other portions of the report. But "even then it seems like transparently trying to advance an agenda that is unconnected to the main crux of the report, in my opinion. Sourcing a study so out of touch really doesn't help folks take the more legitimate and on-topic issues presented in the rest of the report, either."
"Sex trafficking, sex work, and pornography should not have been included in a report about online abuse"
The other controversial aspect of the report was its treatment of both pornography and sex trafficking. On page 6, it says:
The Internet also facilitates other forms of violence against girls and women including trafficking and sex trade. Not only does commercialized sex on the Internet drive the demand for the sex industry overall, it also allows traffickers to use the legal aspects of commercial sex on the Internet as a cover for illegal activities. Some of the main uses of the Internet by traffickers include: advertising sex, soliciting victims on social media, exchanging money through online money transfer services, and organizing many of the logistical operations involved in transporting victims.
Sex worker advocates have long criticized the conflation of sex trafficking and sex work. Online sites that host adult ads have been targeted by law enforcement for facilitating sex trafficking, but sex workers and advocates say that shutting down these sites or pressuring payment processors to cease serving the sites will make sex workers less safe.
On pages 7 to 8, the report also links pornography to violence against women—once again, a controversial claim.
"Sex trafficking, sex work, and pornography should not have been included in a report about online abuse," Harper told me. "It was a distraction from other valid concerns that should have been covered more thoroughly, and furthermore, it was a call for censorship. It is becoming clear that certain groups are willing to fly the flag of online abuse on their pet causes, such as banning pornography or wanting to remove the safety of anonymity."
"I do wish that the report had focused more on revenge porn and how it manifests in online harassment and abuse if it was going to bring up porn at all," said Quinn.
A "caricature" of what the discussion should be
Although Quinn spoke to the UN on the day the report came out, she says she has "no real connection to the report other than being mentioned in it as an example." She did not know the report mentioned her until she received it the morning before her testimony.
"I'm grateful that the UN is taking notice of the very real problems of online abuse, and I was thankful to see stories from all across the globe as well," Quinn told me. "More data that looks at online abuse as it manifests in different ways is always a good thing. However, it's unfortunate that the report has so many problems between needlessly bringing in video games as a scapegoat… and trying to cram a huge, complex issue like sex trafficking into general online abuse issues."
Harper had harsher words for the report. "Cyber violence is a phrase that sounds like it's straight out of a 1990s episode of 60 Minutes," she said. "The recommendations are completely fucking useless, vague, and yet still worrisome, because they are recommending actions like 'monitoring and national accountability.'"
"We'll see yet another case of 'this is why we can't have nice things' but with one of humanity's greatest inventions"
"I think the bad outweighs the good," White told me. While he reiterated that violence against women and online harassment is a problem worth discussing, he expressed concern that the report had discredited the discussion altogether, or had even turned it into a "caricature" of what it should be. "It's turned [discussion of online harassment] into what the people who freak out if you talk about harassment, say it is. Like it's all some sort of plot to censor, by the people who hate video games."
The report is not a legal document and at most has "persuasive power," according to Nanjala Nyabola, a Kenyan foreign policy analyst and human rights law expert.
"The UN agencies do many, many of these reports every month," she said. "At most, they're used to guide conversations that may then maybe lead to a General Assembly resolution or something like that. They're used to start conversations."
But since the report comes from the United Nations, its potential persuasive power is quite strong, and given many of the problems with the report, the conversation seems to have gotten off to a bad start. And for Quinn, the report breathes new life into fears she's had since the start of Gamergate. She worries that one day, an harasser will take aim at a legislator, who will then seek enact overly punitive laws. In her email to me, she warned against "overbroad, knee-jerk, fear-based legislation drafted by people who don't understand what's good about the internet, the importance of things like privacy and free speech online, or how the internet even works in the first place."
"Then we'll see yet another case of 'this is why we can't have nice things' but with one of humanity's greatest inventions," she said.
Disclosure: In June 2015, Sarah Jeong worked with both Randi Harper and Zoe Quinn to protest an ICANN proposal that would exacerbate online harassment.