Screengrab: The Angry Smasher

The Unspoken Traffic Engine That Drives GamerGate

The GamerGate saga shows more about the business model of online journalism than it does about anything else it claims to stand for.

Oct 22 2014, 8:40pm

Screengrab: The Angry Smasher

The essay you're about to read—or immediately scroll to the bottom of to post an angry comment on—contains no discussion of any video game, and doesn't delve into the politics of GamerGate much at all, in fact. And yet, the second I tweet it, I'm going to get a barrage of hate mail and spam—and probably, a boatload of traffic.

As such, it's a pretty good example of why GamerGate hasn't died yet.

It isn't clear when, exactly, GamerGate became a story worthy of wide coverage. But it did. And in a post-newspaper era, publications deal in eyeballs, and often, what gets eyeballs is merely a function of inertia. Without a force pushing back against it, objects in motion tend to stay in motion, and, so far, GamerGate simply hasn't had the pushback from journalists willing to say "enough is enough" that it so desperately needs.

GamerGate is still a thing primarily because the media says it is. Like it or not, when  CNN and The New York Times and the Boston Globe and seemingly every publication, big or small, covers something, it's going to go through the internet echo chamber. It's how you end up with dozens of GamerGate explainers that all say the exact same thing.

(It's at this point where I have to note that it's impossible to write about this without sounding like a giant hypocrite, but such hypocrisy is occasionally necessary in this field, unfortunately.)

GamerGate, like leaked celebrity nudes or the Ebola panic or the fact that Monica Lewinsky just joined Twitter, sells on the internet. GamerGate is an easy thing to write about: Embed some tweets and quote a Reddit post, embed a YouTube video and add an opinion or two, and you have a story. 

The dirty secret here is that, unlike a story about Ebola or Monica Lewinsky or basically anything else anyone writes about, writers and editors can be assured that their GamerGate coverage gets a disproportionate amount of traffic. As far as online journalism gambling goes, it's one of the safer bets you can make.   

That's because GamerGate story readership isn't the general public: It's the people who are in the movement itself. For proof of this, look at the fact that the vast majority of GamerGate coverage have hundreds and even thousands of comments—almost all of them from people in the movement. 

A quick survey around the internet finds  article after article with thousands of Facebook likeshundreds of thousands of page views, and long Reddit discussions. Which is what every online journalist wants, right?

As far as advertisers are concerned, a hate click is still a click; an army of trolling commenters looks the exact same to an analytics program as one from someone who's clicking because they have no idea what the fuss is about, which looks the same as one from people who are appalled at the death threats and harassments that have been coming from the movement.

But at what cost to online society? 

Unlike stories about celebrity nudes or Ebola or Monica Lewinsky's Twitter, the consumers of GamerGate news are by and large the people involved in the movement, who want to try to magnify it until it distinctly becomes A Thing. 

I am not about to compare GamerGate to the Islamic State, but there are unfortunate similarities in how the media treats both.

"Most mainstream media reaches a far larger audience than any IS social media account," security analyst J.M. Berger wrote about reporting the "terrorist on social media" stories this summer. "Consider whether you are taking a nobody and making him or her a somebody by guiding your much larger audience to his or her door."

"Random people tweeting awful things is not news," he continued.

That's as true for GamerGate as it is for ISIS as it is for searching Twitter to see how many people are calling the German national soccer team a bunch of Nazis during the World Cup

Like stories about extreme GamerGate tweets or aggressive online brigades, stories about " ISIS is on social media" or "ISIS has such slick production values" or "Check out this thing ISIS did" were wildly popular this summer. 

(We're obviously not above the fray with regard to GamerGateor ISIS, or any of this, though Motherboard's editorial staff does its best to avoid stories that don't add value.)

To stop covering GamerGate means to pass on potentially hundreds of thousands of page views

But in many cases, those stories don't serve a newsworthy interest, especially when such news has already been reported dozens of time. Instead, re-reporting that the same thing has happened, with ever-increasingly scary and urgent headlines, serves simply as a megaphone for ISIS, just as stories about GamerGate, even negative ones, have served as a megaphone for the movement. 

Is that what an ethical journalist should do?

Well, the media is going to keep doing what it does because that's what pays the bills and, after a decade fraught with layoffs and newspaper bankruptcies, it seems like people have figured out how to make money again. 

Apple announcing an iPhone is news, sure. But Apple announcing an iPhone and breathlessly writing 50 blog posts and a ~live blog~ and an instant analysis and hot takes is when reporting stops being reporting and starts becoming the journalistic equivalent of putting chips on every single number in roulette hoping Reddit or Facebook or someone else picks your story to win that day's internet traffic lottery.

The side effect of this is that the world starts thinking that every time the  House votes to repeal Obamacare or every time Congress holds a hearing about Benghazi or every time John Oliver TOTALLY EVISCERATES someone every time a fringe scientist says climate change isn't real or every time a normal person or government agency joins Twitter or every time a celebrity gets plastic surgery or every time some internet nerds can rile up a Gawker writer on Twitter is capital-I Important.

But with the nature of the GamerGate readership, it's like taking that roulette and making every space on it black. There's no risk in denouncing the movement, but in doing so, you're only giving it a bit of legitimacy it never deserved in the first place.

Some publications are, finally, thankfully starting to say enough is enough. Again, to use the coverage of the Islamic State's social media campaign as a very loose analogy—and, again, I'm not calling GamerGate a terrorist group, even if some of its members  have chased journalists from their homes with death threats—look at what happened after it released its first beheading video. Everyone covered that, and everyone spread tons of IS propaganda in doing so.

Twitter and the news media realized that they were propagating a message of hate, and the  subsequent media blackout has been something of a success. But it takes a concerted effort and, yes, ethics, to do so: To stop covering GamerGate means to pass on potentially hundreds of thousands of page views. To stop covering GamerGate means to stop poking a beehive that's all too happy to swarm your site with eyeballs.

Thankfully, finally, media outlets are starting to get it:  Polygon editor-in-chief Christopher Grant wrote recently that the site had mainly tried to avoid GamerGate coverage: "How do you condemn a mob without drawing attention to that same mob?," he wrote.

Later,  citing the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics, he noted that journalists should "avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do."

In The Guardian, Alex Hern wrote that "it's premature to call time of death on GamerGate. Like the Tea Party, like climate deniers, the group will continue to thrive as long as it's treated as a valid interlocutor in an important discussion."

The media is finally getting that GamerGate is a thing best left ignored. It appears as though we're finally getting close to being done doing what one of my old editors nauseatingly called "riding the wave" of traffic and attention on GamerGate.

The question is: How do we make sure the next GamerGate remains a mere ripple when it's so tempting and easy to let the wave grow to a point where it's ultimately destructive?