The Threats Are Real, But the Danger…Not So Much

I play video games pretty regularly, but except for the occasional threat of government censorship, I’m not much interested in the politics of gaming, and I’m certainly not interested in the politics of gaming reviews or of identity-group-based game criticism. Which is why wrote about a game instead of writing about GamerGate.

(Although…is anybody concerned about the under-representation of left-handed people in first person shooters? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a left-handed viewpoint character. Talk about erasing an outgroup from the discourse…)

Fortunately, Ken White wrote a damned good post about #GamerGate that said almost everything I thought about saying, said it better, and said a lot more that’s interesting as well. Ken’s final point is to denounce the threats of violence, and that reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to write about.

From what I’ve read, several women targeted by misogynistic members of the GamerGate crowd have received threats of rape and murder. At least three of them — game designer Zoe Quinn, game designer Brianna Wu, and feminist game critic Anita Sarkeesian — have decided to leave their homes for their own safety. Games journalists Jenn Frank and Mattie Brice have received so many threats that they decided to stop reporting about games. For God’s sake, they’ve even gone after Felicia Day.

This is a sad and pathetic situation on so many levels. Even if everything Zoe Quinn was accused of was true, and she slept with game journalists to get good reviews for her Depression Quest game, I still don’t understand why people are so damned angry and hateful about it. And Anita Sarkeesian’s criticisms of gaming are the same things feminist critics of popular culture have been talking about for decades. Why is it so upsetting this time? Why threaten rape and murder? What is wrong with these people?

Whatever is wrong, it’s been that way for a while, as Sady Doyle points out. I can remember when tech blogger Kathy Sierra was being hounded over little more than being female and successful. It was ugly. And ever since, I’ve suspected that a lot of women on the internet get these kinds of threats, but most of them don’t talk about it much.

All of which brings me to the main point of this post: As a general rule, women in the public eye are not in serious danger from anonymous strangers who make these kinds of threats.

To get an idea of why I believe this, I’d like you to indulge me in a thought experiment: I’d like you to plan a murder. Imagine that you want to kill someone you don’t know very well. Perhaps some minor public figure, such as one of these women, or one of the people harassing them, or a journalist who said something that pissed you off, or an executive at a company that gave you poor service. How would you personally go about doing it? Ask yourself what your very first step would be. What would you do right now to start your murder plot in motion?

You might start by gathering information about your target. Where do they live? Do they have roommates? Where do they work? Do they have a car? Think about what information you need, and ask yourself how you would get it. Some of it is public information, but at some of it could only be found by surveilling your target. You’d have to learn about them without getting caught, and without leaving evidence behind such as witnesses, internet logs, or security videos that would help police identify you.

You might have to learn your target’s daily routine, and then try to figure out when and where would be best for the attack. Do you break into their home? If so, do you have the equipment you’d need? Do you have the training to use it? Do you know if they have an alarm system, a dog, or a gun in the nightstand? If you attack at their place of work, do you know how to get past building security? How to find their office? If you attack them while traveling to and from work, do you know their route? Do you have to intercept their car? Do you have to follow them on public transportation?

How are you going to do the deed? Do you have a weapon? Do you know where to get one? Do you know how to use it? How will you dispose of it afterwards? Are you going to wear a mask to hide your face, or will that attract too much attention? Are you going to dump the body somewhere, or will that mean too much time driving around with a body? Speaking of cars, do you use your own, which is easily traced to you, or do you take the risk of stealing one and then driving around in a stolen car? Do you even know how to steal a car?

Okay, that’s enough. We’re done planning the murder. I just wanted to go through that exercise to make a couple of points, the most important of which is that no part of the murder plan included a Twitter-based terror campaign to scare the target before we attacked. If you’re planning to actually murder someone, what would be the point of scaring them on Twitter? Won’t the murder be scary enough?

The threats are a waste of time, and worse, they risk tipping off the target, attracting the attention of the authorities, and encouraging greater attention to security. The killer who stalks his victim and issues increasingly frightening threats before his final attack is mostly a creation of fiction. In the real world, people who are going to commit rape and murder usually just go ahead and do it. They don’t bother making threats. The corollary is that people making threats probably aren’t actually planning to commit rape and murder.

(There’s a similar problem with vague bomb threats: “There’s a bomb in your building set to go off at noon!” Real bombers want to cause death and destruction, so why would they warn anyone? There are only a couple of plausible scenarios for a warning about a real bomb. One is that someone close to the bomber — possibly a confederate — has developed feelings of remorse. The other is that someone has discovered the bomb plot and opposes it. But in either of those cases, why not explain exactly where the bomb squad can find the bomb and tell them how to disarm it? And maybe say exactly who placed it and where to catch them? There’s almost no credible scenario for sending a vague anonymous warning about a real bomb.)

There are several reasons why people might make threats without following through on them. For one thing, they may simply not be evil enough. It’s one thing to say you want to kill someone, but it’s another thing to mean it. Almost everyone has at one time or another muttered some vague wish to kill someone who pissed them off — their boss, their spouse, someone they’re doing business with — and some of them have even said it out loud to the target of their anger, but almost nobody ever means it enough to actually do it. There’s a huge difference between angry words and real violence.

For some people, the threats are an end unto themselves. They’re a form of entertainment or a means of self-validation. Some folks get their kicks from mountain climbing or surfing, others play video games or enter poker tournaments. These people get off from threatening other people online. They’re not out to physically hurt anyone, they just like upsetting people. They’re trolls, doing what trolls do. Naturally, there are entire web communities built around this concept.

But even if they are angry or crazy enough to really want to rape or kill the women they’re threatening, that doesn’t mean they’re actually capable of doing it. Many of the people who make these threats are too ineffectual to carry them out. They have trouble enough achieving basic life goals, like living on their own, having a girlfriend, or holding down a job. Carrying out a violent attack against a public figure is way beyond anything they are capable of. It’s just another big plan they’re always talking about without doing anything.

As I tried to illustrate with my “let’s-plan-a-murder” thought experiment, attacking a public figure is kind of hard. It likely requires traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to the target’s location, surveillance, gathering supplies, creating the plan of attack, and committing the crime. None of that is easy, and the people making anonymous threats are unlikely to be willing to expend the time and money to actually do it. They also might not have the physical confidence to overpower a healthy young woman, they might not have access to weapons or know how to use them, and they probably lack the interpersonal skills to trick a target into letting them into their home or meeting them somewhere.

Violent attacks are also not without risk to the attacker, who could be injured during the attack or captured by police afterwards and imprisoned. Even people who who are willing to hurt people and capable of doing it might be reluctant to confront such consequences.

I remember after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the media got some mileage by interviewing young Muslim men in the Middle East who claimed to be planning attacks on the United States. Some of them even carried around photographs of their targets, such as the Sears Tower. Yet those attacks never happened. There’s a big difference between being a terrorist and wanting to be a terrorist.

Posturing is easy. Action is a lot harder. I mean, think about it: Making anonymous threats on the internet is probably the least effective thing you can do that your target would still know you were doing.

I’ve made the claim before that anonymous online threats are unlikely to result in actual attacks, and some people took it the wrong way, so to head off some confusion, here’s what I’m explicitly not saying:

  • I’m not denying the existence of violence against women.
  • I’m not accusing these women of faking the threats. It’s possible that some of them are — people have done it before to garner support — but I’m not talking about fake threats. I’m saying that even real threats against public figures rarely result in real violence.
  • I’m also not talking about any specific woman receiving threats. I don’t know what messages each of them has received, I don’t know their security situation, and I’m not a threat assessment professional. And even if I were, it’s unrealistic to claim there’s no danger at all. I’m just urging a realistic assessment of the threats.
  • I’m not dismissing the danger. This is not a naive position that assumes nothing bad ever happens in the world. I believe my statements about the danger are based on modern thinking about threat assessment.
  • I’m not trying to minimize or whitewash the behavior of the people making the threats. Even if they don’t rape or murder anyone, they’re still using threats of violence to try to intimidate and control their victims. They’re still causing harm, they’re still assholes, and they’re still criminals.
  • I’m not saying threats against women never lead to violence, just that anonymous threats against public figures rarely lead to violence. One of the key predictors of violence is intimacy: The better the victim knows the person issuing the threat, the more likely there will be violence. The most dangerous threats come from someone close to the victim — a spouse, a boyfriend, a coworker, a business partner — someone they know and who knows them.
  • I’m not blaming the women for panicking. They know more about their specific situation than I do, they may have consulted experts, and ultimately, it’s their decision to make. If they’d rather quit their jobs or move out of their homes, I’m not saying they’re wrong to do so. They don’t owe it to anyone to stand fast in the face of threats.

And to be clear, I’m not saying that anonymous threats against public figures never lead to violence, but it takes some special conditions, so it’s much less likely than we might guess at first thought.

Some recent examples of violence against women might seem prove there’s a high level of danger, but on closer examination, I think they prove my point.

In 2011, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was badly wounded during a brutal mass shooting attack by Jared Lee Loughner. As near as I can tell from reports, he only ever made vaguely threatening statements against public officials, none of them addressed specifically to Giffords, and all made in his own name.

Earlier this year, Elliott Rodger went on a killing spree in Isla Vista, California, killing six people and wounding several others. According to a video he made before the incident, he was motivated by his hatred of women who had rejected him. He’s exactly the sort of person that we might imagine is behind the GamerGate-related threats. But Rodger’s behavior doesn’t fit that model. Three of the people he killed were his male roommates — people he was close to — and the rest of the people he shot at were apparently random strangers. There’s no evidence he ever sent them threats or any other communication. He did create the video and a 100,000-word “manifesto” which he sent to several people, but he sent those out under his own name, and not to any of the victims.

As I started writing this, word began to spread of the a murder of a woman in which the killer had posted pictures of the body on 4chan — a website with a lot of GamerGate-related activity. But as it turns out, the killer was her live-in boyfriend, not some stranger from the internet. As is often the case, it’s intimacy that makes for the most serious danger.

Once you start thinking in terms of the difference between threat behavior and attack behavior, you can sometimes see signs of it in the threats themselves. Consider this pair of tweets threatening Brianna Wu:

“Your mutilated corpse will be on the front page of Jezebel tomorrow and there isn’t jack shit you can do about it.”

“If you have any kids, they’re going to die too.”

So this person hasn’t even learned enough about his target to know if she’s got children, but he’s totally going to kill her tomorrow. Right…

There was another one I saw (although I can’t find it now) where the person making the threat was bragging about all the frightening ways he could attack his target, and he said something like “I have friends who can get me any weapon I want — assault rifles, shotguns, pistols, hunting knives, machetes –” In other words, he’s a badass who could hurt her with all kinds of weapons…but he doesn’t actually own any weapons and would have to get them from these people he supposedly knows. Right…

Some of these threatening messages are especially upsetting because they include details that are vivid, obscene, and horrifying — specific objects used on specific body parts in specific acts of violation and bloodshed — sometimes framed in terms of how friends or family members will discover the body. Our natural reaction is to recoil, and it’s easy to think that anyone with such detailed obsessions must be deranged and dangerous.

I think that’s half right. They may be deranged, but I don’t think they’re very dangerous. As I’ve said, dangerous people tend not to make anonymous threats. With that in mind, I think the gruesome details are a telltale sign of someone who knows they’re never going to carry out an attack. The threatening messages have to be as frightening as possible, because they need to do all the work. There’s nothing else coming.

Obviously, I can’t know any of this with absolute certainty, and I don’t claim to. I certainly can’t say anything with certainty about any particular woman who has received threats, nor can I be sure of much about any particular person making threats.

I want to tread carefully here because I don’t want to encourage a false sense of security. There are ways this could turn out to be very dangerous. There are ways that people who make threats could be pushed into violent acts, and even if the people making threats never attack anyone, their threats may create an atmosphere which encourages a more violent person to attack. Or parts of GamerGate could develop into a terrorism campaign in which acts of violence are used to make the threats more credible. I haven’t seen any signs of this I can point to, but if it’s an organized group, imagine something like the Ku Klux Klan. If it’s just one guy, think Unabomber.

That said, for all the reasons I’ve explained, I think it’s unlikely that these anonymous threats against women in the gaming community will result in actual violence. It’s important to keep in mind that we’re all still talking about the GamerGate threats, not the GamerGate attacks. So far, none of the women receiving threats has been physically assaulted.

That’s not to say that the threats themselves aren’t disturbing. It’s painful to read accounts by women who’ve received frightening threats and decided to move out of their own homes because they fear for their safety and the safety of their families. It angers me how much trouble the people making threats have caused with so little effort.

I mostly wrote this post because I’m fascinated by the subject of threat assessment in general, by the division between those who commit violent acts and those who threaten violent acts, and by some of the the counter-intuitive deductions we can make about people who make anonymous threats against public figures.

However, I also wrote this post in the hope that, in some small way, it will undermine the effectiveness of the fear campaign against these women and their allies. At the risk of mansplaining, if some women receiving GamerGate threats stumbles across this post, I’m not saying you have no reason to be afraid, but you almost certainly shouldn’t be as afraid as they want you to be.

3 Responses to The Threats Are Real, But the Danger…Not So Much

  1. Thank you for being rational about this, hysteric seems to be the default setting on this kind of thing.

    I have been on the internet since I was a teenager, and if I moved every time I was threatened with rape, murder, or mutilation I would never have a stable address. If you want to argue about the role of women in gaming, journalism, or the internet, you’d better put on your big girl panties and prep for some blowback, and more than a couple of temper tantrums. That’s how it is, and whining about it just makes you look weak and ill suited to the ecosystem of the world wide web.

    Also, Anita Sarkeesian is an obnoxious, intellectually dishonest, self-important child, and I hope she gets eaten by wolves.

    • Thank you for commenting. It’s easy for me to say “Don’t worry too much” because in 12 years of blogging I’ve only received a handful of threats, none of which seemed serious. It’s helpful to hear from someone who has actually received a lot of threats and agrees that there isn’t really very much danger.

      I don’t think it’s unreasonable for people who receive rape or death threats to worry and get upset. That’s a perfectly normal reaction, especially for people inexperienced with the depths of depravity found on the internet. It’s terrible that they (or you) have to put up with that crap, but as you say, that’s the way it is.

      And that’s how it’s been for a long time. Say something controversial, and of the people who disagree with you, nearly all of them will just move on to something else, a small fraction will post or comment about their disagreement, some of them will be angry, and a handful will make actual threats. But that tiny percentage making threats can seem a lot more ominous when surrounded by hundreds of others who are disagreeing with you.

      As for Anita Sarkeesian…meh, someone on the internet doesn’t like the games I play…moving on…

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