On Gamergate, Digital Harassment, Felicia Day and Bringing Police into the Digital Age

Sometime last year, a good friend of mine mentioned an unusual phenomenon: the online harassment of various women. At the time, unfortunately, I had little experience with the subject. So I did some research and could not find the words or ideas to express my feelings. Consequently, I did nothing. However, when a hero of mine – Felicia Day – experienced the same phenomena, the words came to me.

Now for a little context. Felicia Day had been moved to speak out because of the problems that have plagued Anita Sarkeesian. Simply put, Ms. Sarkeesian is a Canadian-American feminist and media critic. Her area of practice is simple: understanding how women and girls are portrayed in videogames.  Now it might not come to a surprise that she thinks those women are not depicted in a favourable light. Consequently, in 2012, Anita tried to launch an ambitious project. Her aim was to raise $6,000 to study the issue and combat female videogame tropes and stereotypes. This is where Ms. Sarkeesian’s troubles started, for she started to be attacked both on-line and off.

To give an idea of how bad it has become, Anita recently had to cancel a lecture at Utah State University because “an anonymous person threatened to enact a ‘Montreal Massacre style attack’, a reference to a 1989 attack in which a male gunman shot and killed 14 women, claiming he was “fighting feminism”.

As I am a fan of Ms Day, I read her original Tumblr posting. For, I was both surprised that Ms. Day hadn’t said anything on the issue and was curious about her feelings on the issue. Did she feel, for example, that Ms. Sarkeesian was right? Was video game culture not having honest conversations about its depictions of women or the misogyny that might be present in videogame culture? Simply put, I wanted to know more. So I read it.

When I was finished the piece, I found it to be a reasonable discussion about the real fear of a female celebrity who inhabits the geek/nerd/sci-fi/fantasy world. She said that she crossed the street to avoid potential gamers because she didn’t know what reaction she would get; where in the past, she might have said hi. Ms. Day noted that she should be able to speak out and because of that she wrote on her blog.

And then all hell broke loose. Mashable.com contributor Chelsea Stark (in her piece, What Happened When Felicia Day Expressed Fears Over GamerGate) noted that various opponents started posting Ms. Day’s home address and personal email accounts on Twitter. For some, this might not seem like a problem. But if one considers that these same people have already caused two game developers – Brianna Wu and Zoe Quinn – to leave their homes due to threats, one can understand why Felicia Day would be scared. (Felicia Day Writes About #GamerGate, Gets Information Hacked, by Eliana Dockterman @edockterman, Time.com, October 23, 2014)

Now some might say this is not a big deal; but I would not be one of them. As noted previously, it is too easy for internet vitriol to become real world actions. While many of us can separate the written or cyber words from action, some of us can’t. And more importantly, some of us – because of emotional or mental defect – will carry out the most horrific acts. What is worse, is that many people use the internet as an escalation tool. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and Luka Rocco Magnotta did not start out committing horrid acts, they worked up to it. The Internet allows for escalation in a new and dangerous way: A way that society is not ready for. So what do we do? I suggest we learn from the past because we have been here before.

Just think about the campaigns of the 1980’s: domestic violence and drunk driving. In both cases, advocates did not have to change the basics of the law. In both cases, the acts were already illegal. The problem was the police officers tended to be very restrained in their application of the law. For example, punching one’s spouse is a crime, it is an assault. However, previous to the 1980’s, it wasn’t treated as such. For many reasons, Police Officers or Assaulted Spouses did not act. Sometimes, the Assaulted Spouse depended on the income of their abuser. Sometimes, out of misplaced emotions, the victim didn’t want to press charges. While other times, police officers didn’t want to get involved because they would deprive the family of one spouse for a period of time. Either way, advocates spent time both constructing institutions to deal with the social ramifications of a more liberal use of criminal law and arguing with societal institutions that laws should be more liberally used. Consequently, shelters, food banks and designated driver campaigns were started. Over time, the advocates won out. More battered spouses pressed charges and more police officers charged drunk drivers. Accordingly, society’s values were changed.

In that same way, we need to change our view towards internet abuse. While it is commendable that most Canadian governments – Liberal, Conservative/Progressive Conservative, NDP – are seeking solutions for the extreme cases like Rehtaeh Parsons, the truth is that the everyday assaults against Brianna Wu, Zoe Quinn, Felicia Day and others also needs to be addressed.

Most people would suggest that we need a change in the law. Somehow, digital or internet stalking should be made a crime. However, from what we have seen, there is very little difference between internet stalking and the more physical variety. In fact, the previous examples would indicate their similarity rather than their difference.

So what do we do? As I suggested above, a part of the issue is the attitude of society, as reflected in Police Forces themselves. As a society, we have not seen these issues as a big deal, so Police Forces have put other things ahead of this type of cyber-crime. Consequently, we – as a society – have to change this. We need to acknowledge that stalking does not change even if the context does.

But it cannot and should not end there. Let us not forget that modern policing came with the UK’s Metropolitan Police Act (1829). Previous to then, in the context of the British Empire, policing was left to a system of unpaid sheriffs, reeves and constables. Given the rapid urbanization of North America and Western Europe new modes of policing had to be found. In other words, the Assize of Arms of 1252 and Statute of Winchester of 1285 couldn’t cut it anymore. The idea of collective responsibility coupled with an overarching system of watchmen and courts became obsolete. The same thing is happening today.

While local police forces have the jurisdiction, they lack the facilities, resources and manpower to be able to deal with internet crime. Just think about it, the RCMP Commissioner recently noted that they have had to divert personnel, almost 100 persons to their National Security efforts because of recent developments with Zehaf-Bibeau and the more 80 to 90 “high risk travellers that the RCMP is currently investigating”.  (RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson’s statement, Published by the Toronto Star on Oct 23, 2014)

Our present digital world requires a police force that can deal with spyware, viruses, Trojan horses and worms. As it has grown capable of dealing with child pornography, it too must be able to combat online fraud, threats and harassment. For this, police forces do not require new laws, they require the resources. That means instead of tax cuts, we must be willing to spend money on officers, computer labs and training. Changing attitudes and increasing funding will allow us to be able to protect the most vulnerable person: the victim. In doing that, we will be protecting and taking responsibility for “the Other”.  In doing so, we will provide a benefit that will touch the vast majority of society and one that will allow us to bring our police forces in the 21st century. Let us stay strong and be courageous. Let us change the way we police ourselves by changing our conception of policing. For that, and not the changing of laws, is what is required.

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