Trump, Gamergate and the outrage machine

If you want to understand the reason people make parallels between Gamergate and the election of President Donald J Trump, start close to the top. There, you’ll find Steve Bannon, now the president’s senior counselor and chief strategist, but previously executive chair of Breitbart News. Breitbart served as a platform for the Gamergate coverage of Milo Yiannopoulos, who shot to fame as an advocate for something which, as we’ll see, began as one thing and turned into a monster.

Milo himself, of course, became a prominent proponent of Trump during the election, dubbing him “Daddy” and popularising possibly the most odious word ever to become common currency in an election: “cuckservative”.

Then of course there’s Reddit, where the /kotakuinaction board became both a conversation about ethics in journalism and a hub of harassment. Similarly, 4chan’s /pol started as a politics discussion and ended as a meme-generation machine for the “alt-right”. That’s the same alt-right that both Yiannopoulos and Breitbart have long flirted with – bringing us full circle.

Did the Trump campaign and “alt-right” media intentionally mimic the techniques that fuelled Gamergate? While some of the cast of characters may be familiar, and the use of social media is similar both as a medium for legitimate campaigning and outright harassment, the roots of Trump’s election and Gamergate are, at least in the minds of their supporters, quite different.

Gamergate narratives

“I concede there are similarities, but I would say they are as similar as a bird and an aeroplane,” offers internet streamer and Gamergater “Jags Murdock”, who declined to provide his real name. “Both fly, but not for the same reasons.”

Murdock is the perfect example of someone who sees himself as a “moderate” Gamergater. In the two years since it first caught light, the Gamergate name has been used to justify vindictive campaigns designed to terrorise female and LGBT developers, dragging the games industry back into the dark ages. For others, however, it remains (as Murdock puts it) simply a “group of consumers unhappy with the games press colluding to push stories, whilst suppressing others”.

He continues: “The biggest issue is between the games press and developers – people who wouldn’t have normally got a second look getting front pages and others getting ignored due to personal politics.” This idea that games journalists are both too close to each other and to the developers they are covering gained momentum when a Google Group for games writers went public, and was characterised by Gamergate supporters as writers from rival publications discussing how to approach stories in a uniform manner.

The group’s creator, Ars Technica’s senior gaming editor Kyle Orland, dismissed any notion it was evidence of widescale collusion within the games media.

“I see nothing wrong with or even particularly interesting about discussing matters of professional importance in a private Google Group with competing peers,” commented Orland in a follow-up piece on Ars Technica, noting the group had “been a healthy, robust forum for debate among a community of competitors who can rarely agree on anything – much less collude to alter the course of the game industry”.

Note, too, where the story of the alleged collusion originated: with Breitbart and Milo Yiannopolous. No matter what Orland said, Yiannopolous’ narrative grabbed the attention of the Gamergate audience. It seemed to confirm what they already believed and, passed around social media into a series of filter bubbles, it became the dominant narrative for Gamergaters. No matter what Orland said, or who he said it to, Yiannopolous’ narrative won out among Gamergaters to such a degree that Orland’s denials were simply ignored.

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(Above: Milo Yiannopoulos. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

As much as Gamergaters might claim politics had no part in their movement, the decision by Breitbart’s Yiannopoulos to fight their corner on Breitbart brought with it the eyes and ears of the “alt-right”.

“Yiannopoulos served an important and critical function during the infancy and adolescence of Gamergate by using the Breitbart platform to defend it, as well as helping to disseminate in a very public way some of the information and stories that were getting ignored or outright censored in the online media outlets,” offers fellow Gamergater Allen Harris, a senior programmer at a digital marketing company.

“However, he is himself a professional provocateur. As a journalist, he’s violated many of the ethics Gamergate has demanded on many occasions – such as his documents on [programmer and now founder of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative] Randi Harper and [developer] Brianna Wu, which were, I’m sorry to say, personal hit pieces, regardless of their factual accuracy.”

Whether Gamergaters wanted it or not, Yiannopoulos’ involvement painted their side of the argument in stark colours the opposition found only too easy to criticise and, in time, completely ignore.

For Gamergaters, however, the combination of Breitbart painting games journalists as elitists and 4chan suggesting female developers were exchanging sex for media coverage ensured the games industry was painted as utterly unfit for purpose. A scene riddled with crazed individuals who could not be trusted.

The Steve Bannon model

It’s what would become the Steve Bannon model: take a genuinely felt grievance (whether it’s true or not – all that matters is the feelings), dramatise it to make it a matter of life or death, and watch as people feel compelled to pick a side, removing any chance of rapprochement. This would be replayed throughout the 2016 presidential campaign – the debate had been polarised, leaving no room whatsoever for shades of grey.

Of course, all US elections have an element of personality in play. Never before, however, has one candidate threatened to lock up the other if he wins. Like the games industry before it, Trump’s campaign didn’t just slight its opponents, it portrayed the Democrats and the wider political elite in a light that those on the receiving end of Gamergate will find familiar: utterly unfit for purpose. A swamp riddled with crazed individuals who could not be trusted.

“There’s an extreme element to all of these movements that the majority don’t buy into, but which is increasingly shaping them nevertheless”

“There’s an extreme element to all of these movements that the majority don’t buy into, but which is increasingly shaping them nevertheless,” says strategy consultant and former Conservative campaign manager Aaron Ellis. “I honestly don’t know how seemingly smart young people turn into little Nazis. There’s a guy I vaguely know who’s gone from being a nice, liberal Tory to using the language of the alt-right: he recently defended Yiannopoulos against the ‘cuck media’.”

Ellis’ comments illustrate the huge chasms that have opened up between Trump’s supporters and his detractors. For those backing Clinton, all they could see of Trump were the allegations of sexual assault and dodgy business dealings, the extreme-right positions on abortion and homosexuality, and his famed Mexican wall. For his supporters, however, his focus on plain talking over detailed policy and a willingness to take on political correctness were what stood out.steve_bannon

(Above: Steve Bannon. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The more people pointed out his faults and the dubious characters eager to support him – the KKK and Vladimir Putin of note – the less they recognised the insults being hurled in their direction. With hindsight this should have been no surprise: throughout history, few people have ever convinced an opposing side to change their mind simply by shouting at them.

“In the election, the Clinton campaign just assumed that everyone would be as shocked by Trump’s racism and misogyny as they were,” claims Ellis. “With a few exceptions, they never really tied it to the day-to-day lives of voters. I agree with Tony Blair that the reason why centrists lost so badly in 2016 is that we got ‘fat’ and complacent. I think the night of Trump’s victory, Jon Lovett – the co-host of Pod Save America – said that his big mistake was confusing serious thinking for conventional thinking. That was my mistake, too.”

The loudest voices in the room

Concerns that Trump was unfit for office were valid, but they clouded his mass appeal with America’s disenfranchised; a generation of people who felt left behind by successive administrations perceived to be interested only in the big cities. As with Gamergate, the debate got caught up in why people were wrong to support him, rather than addressing the actual reasons they were.

“There’s a huge number of people who felt the US government and the president weren’t talking to them or people like them, and then Trump’s suddenly talking to them and making them all kinds of promises,” muses Mikey Smith, political reporter for The Mirror. “I think he got the groundswell of support because he’s the polar opposite of the last guy. I’ve listened and read a lot of quotes from Trump voters, and it genuinely seems like they voted for him despite the racism, sexism, et cetera – not because of it.”

But this is where the two movements split. While vocal Gamergate supporters exist to this day, it’s hard to put a finger on just what has been accomplished other than an assault against women working within the games industry. Even its most vocal supporters would have to admit few if any games publications have actually changed their practices, and any valid criticism of individual journalists is dismissed if the person making it has even the slightest association to Gamergate. The war rages on for some, but the generals have long since left the battlefield.

Unless we understand the lessons of how a grievance turned into a vicious campaign of harassment we will be condemned to a cycle of vicious politics too

In contrast, Trump’s campaign was victorious. Even if his presidency is a complete failure, his victory has almost certainly redefined American politics for a generation. And this is where understanding Gamergate could be crucial, because unless we understand the lessons of how a grievance turned into a vicious campaign of harassment we will be condemned to a cycle of vicious politics too.

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(Credit: Creative Commons, Gage Skidmore)

Treating any mass movement as a uniform body, where the extremes are applied to the whole, only alienates people further. The emotions involved in both debates have caused us all to focus on the provocateurs on either side, but what Gamergate and the rise of Trump are really about, however, is people talking past each other. If those opposed to President Trump want to weaken his base, they will do well to listen to the concerns of the people who voted for them, drawing them away from the provocateurs who want to ensure there’s no possibility of compromise.

“I think the parallel [between Gamergater and Trump] is that there was a small group of people with quite extreme views who learned how to exploit the ‘outrage’ machine and press a larger group of people’s buttons,” sums up Smith. “There’s also a certain degree to which there’s a wide variety of things people are pissed off about – many of which aren’t racist, sexist or anything like that. They’ve simply been caught under the umbrella with some genuine extremists.

“It’s important to recognise that it’s the extremists pulling these strings,” he finishes. “A lot of people are just along for the ride.”

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