The Boy Who Cried False Flag

Last week a series of bomb threats derailed the #GamerGate panel at a conference being held by the Society for Professional Journalists.  Of course, there are some who were quick to claim this event as evidence of radical feminist violence being Just As Bad (TM) as anything endured by Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian and the rest of #GG’s targets.

However, there is evidence that a poster on an 8chan board called /baphomet/ which has previously been associated with groups organizing doxxing brigades and swatting (a “prank” in which someone tells the police there is a hostage situation happening at your address, causing them to kick the door in and violently raid your home on the basis of this false report) was behind the threats.  Of course, #GG claims that the trolls at /baphomet/ are unaffiliated with their crusade to bring about ethics in games journalism while #GG’s critics are assuming that the bomb threat was part of a publicity stunt designed to generate attention for the panel.

#GG has also accused their rivals of planting “false flags” or of manufacturing false claims of harassment and then attributing them to opponents.

It is obvious that competing cries of “false flag!” represent a fundamental breakdown in communication between two groups.  It is the point at which people are unwilling to consider each other’s evidence because it is easier to believe that their opponents would undertake a conspiracy to concoct fake hate Tweets and death threats than it is to believe in the fallibility of your own ideology.

But more importantly, though the “false flag” claim is a rhetorical gambit aimed at winning over the broader public (“We aren’t as bad as they are saying we are!  In fact, they are lying to make us look awful!”), it also represents a profoundly inward turn.  It is the moment in which the Actual Issues that were ostensibly being discussed (be they “ethics” or sexism and racism in games culture) are thrown to the side and replaced with a fight about who the REAL assholes are.  Such inside baseball arguments are a perfect excuse for outside observers to throw up their hands and decide that the entire debate is toxic and the best course is to take a neutral position on the whole thing.

Herein lies the rub.  We need to ask ourselves, who benefits when observers outside Internet culture decide that the fight for diverse representation in tech (or even the fight for ethics in gaming/tech journalism!) is a cesspool that is unworthy of their attention?

The answer, of course, is those who are most comfortable maintaining the status quo.  If the public and the corporations and advertisers who have been observing #GamerGate decide that, actually Both Sides are equally toxic, then they will simply continue to operate as they always have.  And tech culture will continue to be a straight white male clubhouse.

Whether or not they are the ones to employ the “false flag” strategy, #GamerGate and their ideological partners in the Men’s Rights Activist movement gain ground whenever such arguments are put forth.

So, as citizens of the Internet who are invested in Social Justice, what are we to do?

Don’t follow the conspiracy theorists down the rabbit hole.

If some troll calls in a bomb threat to a #GG event, our focus should on how such a terrible event emphasizes the need for law enforcement to learn more about Internet harassment: how to investigate it, how to prevent it, how to prosecute it.  Focus on pointing out how the normalization of trolling and harassment on the Internet has the potential to hurt and terrorize anyone, that it’s not just a problem had by women or people of color or queer folk or the so-called “SJWs” on Tumblr.

Focus on convincing observers of the debate of the rightness of your own cause, not the dirt you can gather on the other side.

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