All Your Base are Belong to Us: Gamergate and Infrastructures of Online Violence
From the Series: Evil Infrastructures
From the Series: Evil Infrastructures
Misogynistic online harassment is facilitated by material, human, informational, and rhetorical infrastructures. Orchestrated campaigns to punish, shame, threaten, and terrorize feminist technology users often coopt or reverse engineer the infrastructures of social justice movements. Harassers borrow from the tactics of hashtag activism, standards of legal equality, conventions of performing identities within communities of practice, and the architectures of distribution, replication, optimization, and reciprocity built into the Internet itself. To align their interests, coordinate their hostile and exclusionary affective labor, and police the boundaries of networked publics that they believe should only welcome white males like themselves, harassers manipulate a number of infrastructural norms: rules for registering domain names, standards for IP addresses, online upvoting procedures, and the protocols of crowdfunding and customer service mechanisms.
In the case of the GamerGate campaign, online misogynists appropriated the infrastructural advantages of feminist topoi such as “safe space,” by defending gaming circles against killjoys whom these harassers designated as social justice warriors or SJWs. This move echoed assertions by former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos that those resisting political correctness ought to retreat “behind closed doors” for protection from a so-called war on boys. Yiannopoulos empathized with those who sought sanctuary in traditional spaces of masculine homogeny—such as fraternities and locker rooms—and he warned of a “sexodus” from mainstream society into video games, Internet pornography, and digitally mediated worlds.
While promoting antifeminist vitriol, alt-right websites frequented by online harassers make claims about technological mediation that deny the embodiment, materiality, labor, and situatedness of digital culture. At the same time, these websites affirm positive notions about the exceptionalism of a realm defined by bits rather than atoms. This rhetorical infrastructure, which emphasizes transparency, neutrality, and universality, provides a set of discursive affordances that misogynists can use to their argumentative advantage.
One obvious response to such rhetoric from the alt-right would be to undertake what Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star (1999, 34) have called an infrastructural inversion, which aims at “recognizing the depths of interdependence of technical networks and standards” and acknowledging “the real work of politics and knowledge production” in uncovering unseen support systems. As Star (1999) pointed out elsewhere, infrastructure can be both concrete and abstract, composed of inanimate material objects as well as human actors. Thus, something becomes infrastructure in relation to organized practices, such that in a given context timing dictates the definition of infrastructure.
Inevitably, to do the work of infrastructural inversion is to recognize the difficulties of disentanglement. Infrastructure is, after all, “both engine and barrier for change; both customizable and rigid; both inside and outside organizational practices. It is product and process” (Star and Ruhleder 1996, 111). So, given the polymorphously perverse qualities of infrastructure as well as its ubiquitous presence, how are feminists expected to shield themselves when tactics of misogyny depend on the shared practices and mutual contingencies that are present in infrastructure?
Media scholar Deb Verhoeven has suggested one possibility, which she refers to as digital infrapuncture, playing on the terms infrastructure and acupuncture. By emphasizing “small-scale but catalytic interventions,” Verhoeven argues that it might be possible to “relieve stress,” although she notes that this model “requires us to have a sensitivity to suffering and damage” as well as “where it hurts in society.”
In experimenting with infrapunctural interventions, the Center for Solutions to Online Violence (CSOV) has foregrounded intersectional theory and contributions from woman-of-color feminism. Members of the collective acknowledge the limitations of white-woman-in-distress tropes or narratives of resilience when describing situations of online and offline precarity. Rather than present a one-size-fits-all menu for countering online violence, members try to think together about how personal histories and social roles matter, particularly when there are many types of victims, perpetrators, and intermediaries involved. In addition to its affiliation with FemTechNet, the CSOV has been in regular communication with groups like the Tactical Technology Collective, WAM!, Women and Surveillance, and the Women’s Media Center Speech Project. CSOV member Moya Bailey asserts the importance of acknowledging “the different communities that exist online and the different types of violence,” as well as the different responses that queer people and women of color have undertaken.
Using an analogy from the infrastructure of food systems, CSOV member Seda Gürses worries that a focus on personal responsibility and resilience online shifts burdens from market and government actors onto the most vulnerable:
If your local supermarket is stuffed with cheap and unhealthy food and you don’t have further financial means, eating healthy is a non-option. Such framings are disrespectful to people and they redirect the emphasis from those who are providing us with the “food.” The same holds for asking people to protect their privacy when their environment is saturated with intrusive technologies. As trainers or mentors, we can teach people some privacy tricks, but we are not solving the bigger problems. What we need is to change the way we consume technology and how we produce it.
Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Leigh Star. 1999. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Star, Susan Leigh. 1999. “The Ethnography of Infrastructure.” American Behavioral Scientist 43, no. 3: 377–91.
_____, and Karen Ruhleder. 1996. “Steps Toward an Ecology of Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces.” Information Systems Research 7, no. 1: 111–34.