Misogyny has become something of a defining feature of social media. It's like Godwin's Law but often seems even more inevitable: as a discussion goes on, someone will eventually spew abuse targeted at a woman, or women in general. Bring up certain subjects, and you can speed up that process. One topic in particular has been a no-go zone in the past few months: video games.
The voices might continue to wail, but they don't have to be heard. One woman recently targeted on Twitter has built her own tool to try to keep the torrents of insults out of digital earshot.
"I've been, myself, a target of harassment, because I'm in tech," said Randi Harper, a San Francisco-based video game developer. "This has been the case for about 20 years on and off on the internet."
Harper is the creator of Good Game Auto Blocker, or ggautoblocker, a tool that is intended to filter out Twitter users who support Gamergate, the online controversy characterised by misogynistic harassment within the video game community.
Harper said she'd laid low online before deciding to speak out in light of abusive comments made against female game developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu. She has been outspoken on Twitter against Gamergate and related harassment.
"Once I did that, Gamergate went on attack," she said. "I received an insane amount of messages." Many of the offensive accounts have been removed, but Harper sent me examples of the kind of messages still out there and screenshots of some that had been deleted.
There's what she calls the "kill yourself type stuff" like the articulate user with a trollishly offensive username who tweeted: "you hypocritical cunt. srsly, fucking kill yourself. the world could do without people like you." A lot of tweets focus on her appearance, which she said are "mild in comparison" but impressive in volume. Many call her fat, and "blue haired cunt" is a popular insult. Accusations I won't propagate here have been passed around, people have tweeted her employers in an attempt to menace her job, and several accounts have threatened to doxx her (reveal personal information about her online). One person who calls himself "Big Daddy of #gamergate" in his Twitter bio tweeted a photo of himself outside her office.
Harper said she received tens of thousands of messages within a month, which led her to write a script that would help weed out members of the movement. She shared the code on code-sharing service GitHub in November.
The tool is a pretty simple concept: It blocks users who are likely to participate in mass harassment campaigns related to Gamergate.
To do this, it looks at the followers of Twitter accounts "that are known to incite the mob campaign to attack a single user," Harper explained in a blog post introducing ggautoblocker. If someone is following two or more of these users, their name ends up on the block list. Other Twitter users can subscribe to this shared block list to stop seeing messages from those accounts.
Harper described those on the initial list the code combs as users who "tend to really get the mob going and get them targeting one person." She named attorney Mike Cernovich and British writer Milo Yiannopoulos as examples, both of whom pounced on the Gamergate "cause" and tweet regularly on the subject to tens of thousands of followers.
Last week, Twitter announced some improvements to its harassment reporting mechanisms. The changes make blocking one user a bit easier; you don't need to give as much information as you used to, you can more easily report harassment that is happening to someone other than yourself, and it works better on mobile.
Twitter wrote in its announcement that this was "the first of several behind-the-scenes improvements to the tools and processes that help us review reported Tweets and accounts." Users will also have more control over accounts they have blocked, which now won't be able to see the blocker's profile.
A PARTICULAR ISSUE WITH FIGHTING HARASSMENT ON TWITTER IS THE DIFFICULTY OF REPORTING OR BLOCKING LARGE NUMBERS OF ACCOUNTS AT ONCE
It's a welcome update, but it'll only do so much to help those who find themselves victims of massive campaigns of abuse. A particular issue with fighting harassment on Twitter is the difficulty of reporting or blocking large numbers of accounts at once. And if you end up at the wrong end of a widespread hate campaign, that's probably what you want to do. You don't want to have to go through reams of offensive or threatening tweets and manually block.
Harper's solution enables users to essentially auto-block a whole gaggle of accounts, rather than having to go through and block hundreds or thousands individually. It's not perfect; as the code simply tracks followers of certain accounts, it will invariably block some people the user might not have anything against. Following pro-Gamergate accounts does not necessarily mean you agree with them. The false positives have spurred gleeful attacks from critics.
But blocked users who feel they have been unfairly added to the list can appeal to be added to a white list. Harper admitted it's also pretty easy to get around the block (you could make a new account, for instance), and added that just making the tool has made her more of a target, exacerbating the initial problem she faced.
She's working on a new version that she said would monitor additional information like the Gamergate hashtag and the usernames of herself and other targeted female developers, as well as the age of the account. "I'm hoping to actually use this data to start being able to block on the fly," she said.
As the code is open source on GitHub, anyone can fork it and make their own similar tool—Gamergaters on the other side of the controversy, for instance. "Gamergate says they're being harassed by people who are against them, and I believe that," said Harper. "There are terrible people in the world; they will go out and jump on a cause just so they can cause trouble."
But Gamergate doesn't seem to have taken up the offer; one user forked the code for a project titled "sjwautoblocker" ("SJW" referring to "social justice warrior," the derogatory term for people who take up social justice causes), but this appears to have now been disabled by GitHub.
There's no perfect solution for dealing with misogynistic harassment on the web, but it's clear that both individuals and Twitter itself are not content to sit back and let this kind of behaviour run unchecked. The company has also recently partnered with non-profit organisation Women, Action, and the Media (WAM) to help tackle gendered harassment.
The internet is coming round to the realisation that action is needed, and the freedom to communicate freely does not equal freedom to abuse. Ignoring the issue is no longer an acceptable option.
xx is a column about occurrences in the world of tech, science, and the internet that have to do with women. It covers the good, the bad, and the otherwise interesting gender developments in the Motherboard world.