After years of GamerGate harassment, Brianna Wu's still fighting

Internet trolls turned Brianna Wu's life upside down. But she's running for Congress and thinking all isn't quite lost.

Erin Carson Former Senior Writer
Erin Carson covered internet culture, online dating and the weird ways tech and science are changing your life.
Expertise Erin has been a tech reporter for almost 10 years. Her reporting has taken her from the Johnson Space Center to San Diego Comic-Con's famous Hall H. Credentials
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Erin Carson
5 min read
GamerGate Anger At women All Too Real For Gamemaker

Brianna Wu has her eye on Congress in 2018.

Boston Globe

Editors' note: This story was originally published June 15. We are rerunning it as part of our new series about hate on the internet.

For the past three years, Brianna Wu's been barraged with hate.

Wu, who co-founded indie game development studio Giant Spacekat, became the target of a legion of mostly anonymous internet trolls during GamerGate -- the name given to a 2014 campaign that directed hate against an indie game developer named Zoë Quinn and people, like Wu, who spoke out about what was happening to her.

The trolls have made death threats and made Wu's personal information public so others could heap on even more harassment.

Since then, the threats have kept on coming. Wu's also witnessed those same methods of harassment -- angry people on the internet lashing out -- applied in different arenas outside the video game world. 

While GamerGate wasn't an inciting event for this type of behavior online, it was a step toward an age where you may find yourself at the receiving end of intense hatred for expressing a view that makes some group of trolls mad.

Despite what Wu's lived through -- or rather because of it -- she's now running for Congress in Massachusetts in 2018. Her thinking is that perhaps, all is not lost.

"If you look throughout history, there's a really interesting phenomenon that [happens] when you push women too far and we decide to put an end to it," Wu said. "It's when wars get stopped, it's when economies shift, it's when civil rights fundamentally move forward."

I spoke with Wu about the personal effects of online harassment, how law enforcement needs to step up and what's going to change in the next two years. Here's an edited transcript of our conversation.

In the past several years, we've seen tactics like online harassment and doxxing become more prevalent and leap from the video game industry to the US presidential election. How do you describe what we're seeing?
GamerGate was the canary in the coal mine. GamerGate was the first really high-profile test case of this. Even though video games are a different industry than white supremacy, it's very much based in the same, frankly, white male resentment toward inclusion toward others. When the FBI completely, absolutely failed to do anything about GamerGate, it's not a coincidence that the very next year, we saw the rise of the "Alt-Right" and [then candidate Donald] Trump's playbook. I think it showed this kind of intimidation is completely inbounds.

Part of living in a free society is to tolerate someone, even when they're expressing very sexist and hateful things. At the same time, it's reasonable for us, as a society to look at this radicalization of angry young white men and to really look at how it's turning to violence and intimidation, how it's really being weaponized to destroy our American values.

When no one suffers consequences for online intimidation and harassment, what's the long-term effect?
I love developing video games. It's my life's purpose. But there's a reason why I'm taking a step back from the studio I worked my butt off to found and that's because the only way forward I can see on this issue involves changing the law. This has so much overlap here -- it has to do with women in tech and the way we're treated and online harassment.

There's no shortage of beautiful speeches and noble declarations and outrage. But what there's a huge shortage of is action. I don't know how else we move forward on this without mandating that some part of law enforcement is required to look into these crimes.

As best as I can count, there are 18,000 FBI agents working in the United States and exactly zero of them are tasked with prosecuting these kinds of [harassment] crimes. Danielle Citron, who is the pre-eminent legal scholar in the world on [cyberstalking and online harassment], ran the numbers. It was something like, out of 5 million cases in the last three years, she was able to find 17 cases of people going before a judge because of it.

The truth is, if you threatened to murder someone online or dox them or do any number of these things, you would get thrown in jail if you did it in public. The truth is -- no help is coming and nothing is going to happen.

I spoke with a psychologist who suggested attacks like we saw during GamerGate can change the emotional tenor of society -- do you agree with that idea?
I turned 40 this year and I remember so clearly when "Star Trek Voyager" came on the air. A few years before, we'd gotten our first black Star Fleet captain and nobody really batted an eye. A few years later, we got our first woman Starship captain and the reaction was largely positive. If you look at how it's handled today -- you have women-only "Wonder Woman" screenings and it's just so hyper politicized and we are bullied and silenced for saying anything that's trying to address structural sexism. It is much, much worse than it's ever been.

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As someone who has been on the receiving end of this, I have to tell you, the damage it causes to you is real. I have been in therapy for years now in the aftermath of GamerGate because you can't be a normal human being and be told that you're going to be murdered, killed, raped and dismembered hundreds and hundreds of times without that affecting you. You'd have to be sociopathic for that not to affect you.

My friend Peter Cohen in Massachusetts, he's a tech journalist, very correctly called this emotional terrorism. I fully agree with that. It is trying to make the cost of speaking up so high that women, people of color, LGBT people -- that we just stay silent because it's safer.

Are you optimistic for the future? Can we course correct?
 I don't want to minimize this because we've got a hell of a lot of work to do, but what I find so encouraging is that there are women all around me that have just been pushed too far. We've had enough and there's an entire army of us running for office.

For all the horrors that are going on right now, it's awakened literally millions of people out there in America to stand up and get involved and make a difference. They don't have a clue what's coming.

If you look throughout history, there's a really interesting phenomenon that [happens] when you push women too far and we decide to put an end to it. It's when wars get stopped, it's when economies shift, it's when civil rights fundamentally move forward. That is a historical pattern and that is what's about to happen in 2018. We've got a lot of work to do.  

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