It's been a pretty awful year or so for a lot of people in the industry. You know why, there's not really any need to rake over the coals here - suffice to say, humans are still hugely crappy to each other on a regular and excessive basis.
Not many people have seen more of the sharp end of that than Zoe Quinn and Alex Lifschitz. Endlessly targeted with harassment, doxxing, smear campaigns and outpourings of abuse, Quinn and Lifschitz have been through the mill, the grinder and the wars so many times that they're probably more familiar with modern mob harassment techniques than almost anybody else.
They're angry about it. Of course they are. You don't suffer the slings and arrows of such outrageous idiots without working up a healthy head of resentment, but they're not turning that anger into vengeance or negativity. Instead, they're using it to help others who have experienced similar treatment, setting up support service Crash Override to administer advice, guidance and empathetic comfort to anyone who's suffered at the many hands of online abusers.
"They come to us with all manner of things," Lifschitz tells me, when I ask him what sort of problems people are approaching him with. "Some are looking for support in ongoing harassment campaigns, some are looking for commiseration after suffering the effects of older harassment. Everything you might expect, including a lot of things we'd never actually intended to field when we started out, but we're branching out as we're beginning to see the extent of the need that's being illustrated to us.
"You can't just say 'go talk to the cops' to everyone, because that's not always good advice"
"The cases seem to come in all shapes and sizes. One of the big frustrations we had when we were going through it was that even long-standing anti-harassment groups weren't really equipped to deal with a lot of the things that were happening. Even then they'd give you a brochure and a pat on the back and send you on your way. One thing you have to recognise is that no two cases of harassment are ever the same; it depends on who the victim is, who the aggressors are, what they're trying to do. These little differences can decide the entire course of action - whether you should just walk away, whether it needs action, counselling, whether you need to look out for your safety. They're all wildly different, but the source is all the same: co-ordinated online mob harassment."
"The mechanisms at large are the same, but the way that they manifest in an individual's life can be quite different," adds Quinn. "It's also what they want to do about it - that's probably the biggest factor we take into account when we're advising people on what to do. If they're in a situation where they're really interested in pressing law enforcement, that will be very different to the next case where they absolutely do not want to pursue that. You can't just say 'go talk to the cops' to everyone, because that's not always good advice.
"Sometimes it's just as someone who's freaking out and needs help stopping pizza deliveries coming to their house or take pre-emptive action. Sometimes that's enough, having other people around so you're not dealing with it on your own, which was a massive problem for us when we were there. Being able to share some of the burden can be a great help to people."
It's well gone midnight for the pair, but they don't sound remotely fatigued, neither by the hour nor the things which they've endured over recent months. There's a steely resolve to them both, but also a poised wariness. It strikes me that they're probably, unsurprisingly, very prepared for me to turn out to be another aggressor, someone looking for an angle of attack.
"Because they're trying to help - not to profit or to attack or to demean, but to help - they've become targets. Again"
Crash Override was founded because of Quinn and Lifschitz's experience on the sharp end of things, but isn't really intended to be an extension of that experience or the environment which bred it. The mission statement is an open and unbiased one: if you're suffering abuse online, we can try to help, or direct you towards people who can. Inevitably, though, they've still been flooded by spam, unfounded accusations, DDOS attacks - all the go-to tools in the arsenal of the very people they're combating. Because they're trying to help - not to profit or to attack or to demean, but to help - they've become targets. Again.
Some of the flak is worse than others. Getting spurious email sign ups to "Cat of the week" might not present much of a problem, but the general ratio of "signal to noise" can make the practicalities of offering advice very difficult indeed. Quinn says it's something they were entirely prepared for and something they're taking in their stride.
"Yeah we get false flags," she tells me. "But rather than asking 'Are we going to try and verify every claim of harassment', well, no, because that's a huge time sink. We offer very specific services instead - how to pull you docs down from sites, how do you make your accounts more secure, how do you talk to police. That kind of thing can't be misused for anything, so even if people want to waste their time and try and waste ours by drumming up something, we just try and talk about their specific case of harassment. So if there's nothing there, there's nothing to be done. Even if they do make something up then it's like 'Oh no! Now your fake account is more secure!' Who loses?"
"We're getting pretty good at sniffing out what's disingenuous and not," Lifschitz explains. "A lot of them telegraph it from pretty far away. We have seen people openly talk about trying to get under our skin, to honeypot us. One of the things that we specify is that we straight-up do not take any offensive action against individuals. We don't harass back, we don't plan any retaliatory stuff. There are a lot people who try and trick us into that, 'Oh hey I know this guy and you should try and ruin his life'. Well, they're going to be disappointed. We don't do that. Our mission is to de-escalate these things and return control to the victim. We've gotten hundreds of legitimate emails, but even with that there's roughly 70 per cent spam and harassment. But we are survivors of this stuff, doing it for survivors of this stuff, so we know how to deal with it."
"We come under attack every day, by people who hide behind the banner of free-speech, and they demean it by doing so"
"They really only have one playbook," says Quinn, a little of the fatigue she must feel showing in her voice. "We anticipated this stuff. They've been trying to hack and DDOS the site since its inception, as well as my personal site. I get IP lockout notifications all the time from people trying to login with things like admin/password. We saw those coming - that made it easier. We've had 100 per cent up time so far."
It's not just two people on the front line. Quinn and Lifschitz have engaged with a wide-reaching and well-experienced network of support staff who can take on the needs of individual cases. Some of those are public advice services like the Trans Life Line, but many are also just fellow survivors and volunteers. Protecting them is absolutely key to the success of the entire initiative - the last thing they want is to simply create another avenue of abuse - but they both know that, even still, they're asking a lot of their network.
"Even after just a week of doing this, I can see why other organisations don't try and offer the sort of level of individual attention that we do," Lifschitz admits. "It burns you out. You spend a lot of time getting emails about people in situations that, thankfully, a lot of the time we're equipped to help them with. But we're still working up our infrastructure, training people on how to respond to risk."
"They get burned out too," says Quinn of Crash Override's supporters. "If you're monitoring doxxing threads, for example, they do things like photoshopping docs onto pictures of mutilated human corpses. A lot of our organisation has dealt with trauma, and they're tremendous, but it is exhausting."
There's also a mind-boggling amount of traffic to monitor. Like so many tools, it didn't take long for the new forms of communication afforded by the internet to be misappropriated for ill purpose. Social media, and Twitter in particular, have become the avenues of choice for many abusers, with the anonymity and audience reach they provide offering a perfect method of delivering hatred from afar. For both Quinn and Lifschitz, the providers of those services have to do more than they are currently. I ask how much responsibility companies like Twitter should be taking
"People don't always see each other as human online. There's a dehumanisation effect. Sometimes they're just out for blood"
"Huge amounts," exclaims Quinn. "People don't always see each other as human online. There's a dehumanisation effect, sometimes they're just out for blood - but those aren't unknown quantities. That's been around forever. Who do you get mad at - the two year old who crashed the car into the tree or the adult that gave them keys and said 'Here kid, go nuts'? It's not like they don't have terms of service in place, we're just asking them to be enforced. If they're unable to, then maybe they should do something about that."
"It's not like a lot of these services are making these people terrible - they're always going to find a route to do that - but they are exposing a lot of their audience to targets," adds Lifschitz. "One of the larger battles we fight is the idea that silence can be a form of complicity to the point of involvement. It comes from the people who curate these spaces as well. We generally try not to ask for a lot: just for the ability to be responsive and respectful to users. It's a huge mind-fuck that you can have someone who has been banned six or seven times that can come back and start actively stalking people, and you still have to fill out a report form and just hope that they take you seriously."
To be fair to Twitter, the company has at least started to realise just how much it could be failing its users, and has promised to do something about it, but it's a huge job. Even if they can create an effective and pervasive method of controlling harassment, social media companies can only control their own services. As anyone who's followed the headlines of the last year knows, the roots to so much of what Quinn and Lifschitz have experienced personally lie well beneath the many branches of social media.
Primarily, it's board culture. These are the places where the doxxing groups are found, where revenge porn is posted, where there are conversations between people intent on finding the best way to persuade people to commit suicide. So much of the hate and bile that Crash Override encounters is fomented on anonymous boards like the 4Chan, 8Chan and IAB - they're largely unregulated, notoriously unstable and prone to excess. In the face of so much abuse being facilitated and perpetuated by communities of the faceless and unaccountable, do Quinn and her partner still believe in the sanctity of anonymity online?
"I still think that there are a lot of good things that come from the preservation of anonymity"
"I really believe in the unfettered values of free speech," says Lifschitz, unequivocally. "My problem is that free speech became the banner behind which these people would hide in order to silence others. What they were doing over the course of Gamergate was trying to prevent people expressing their right to free speech in these communities, they were trying to silence them in every way they could. If they couldn't find a legal way, they would do it by intimidation, by individual harassment. Their argument was that their right to free speech included a right to silence others.
"We come under attack - on the Crash Override site and our personal sites - every day, by people who hide behind the banner of free-speech, and they demean it by doing so. If you say that you're pro-free speech and then you DDOS a site to take it down and silence it, that just doesn't work. When it comes to anonymous collectives, because they have no figure heads and no central repository, they're ultimately judged by actions. When you look at their actions, this is one of the biggest groups of anti-free speech advocates I've ever experienced.
"People ask if there's any awareness of that irony, any sense of self-realisation at all. Some people think that there's no internal logic, that they're just blindly lashing out in anger, but I don't think that's true. I've always thought that there is an internal consistent logic, which is hatred of progressives, hatred of people fighting for their space. Reality and principles will warp to fit that hatred."
"I still think that there are a lot of good things that come from the preservation of anonymity," says Quinn. "For example, if you're someone like Leela Alcorn, she spoke about how the silver lining in all the horror was being able to find a community where she could go online and talk about things. She had the freedom to pursue that. There are so many people in the LGBTQ community that aren't out yet, having anonymity helps them find communities and be open.
"I get anonymous messages about Depression Quest all the time because people are still so afraid to publicly identify as having a mental illness because of all the stigma attached to it, so anonymity is a way they can still reach out to somebody instead of just suffering in silence, which also ends lives.
"Whistleblowers too, and just people who want basic privacy - I think people have a right to basic privacy! Not just from the government but from anonymous mobs and from peers. So I think it's absolutely worth it. I think that the primary source of what people think of as anonymous online culture is from a very specific sort of internet user and shouldn't be used as a sample size."
Those specific users are very much in the minority, even if they might be well versed in the signal-boosting techniques which make it seem otherwise. Most people online, even in places like 4Chan, aren't frothing lunatics, racists, misogynists or would-be murderers. However, it strikes me that there has been a definite shift in online culture, that it seems like the internet, and perhaps the young people who make up so much of its traffic, is moving to the Right. In itself, that's not necessarily a bad thing - stagnant conversations are rarely interesting ones - but there is also an undeniable link between some of the starkest values of what could charitably be called extreme Conservatism and the zealously exclusionist attitudes that harass, marginalise and victimise those groups deemed to sit unacceptably outside of the 'norm.'
I ask Quinn if she thinks that's happening, if the sort of people who might send death threats to a trans-woman, or post the home address of someone with a dissenting view, or call in a SWAT team to someone's house, would self-identify as Conservative at all?
"Well there's the stuffy old right, the religious right, the classic Conservatives that we know of - what everyone thinks of when you say that," she says. "But there are words in other languages for this kind of person we're seeing now on the internet. In Swedish it's "näthat", which means "net hate". in Japanese it's "nettu oyuku", which is "internet right-wing". They don't think they're anything like the classic Republicans. Those guys are old and boring and religious. We're atheist and Libertarian and that's totally different! Sure we still hate black people, sure we can't stand women, but it's different because we're young and cool and oppressed because we're a minority.
"We really need to examine what the internet means to us, what it gives us access to, what that does to youth culture"
"They want all the sexiness of pretending that they have an underdog story, but they want all the conservatism and the 'fuck you, I got mine' attitude of Libertarianism and objectivism. It's like a new kind of neo-con."
"Youth culture allows a great many things and outlets for people who didn't have them before, but it can also fast-track you along the road in the mistakes that you make, mistakes that you're supposed to be making at that age," Lifschitz adds. "This kind of stuff has only been around for so long. We don't know how sticky it is, we don't have long term studies on how people move through internet politics over the course of their life. It's just more access to more information.
"This is something that factors in culturally to how we raise our kids. When everyone's carrying around a machine in their pocket that gives them access to the sum total of all human knowledge, that's the sort of stuff that Phillip K Dick used to write about - and he was out of his mind. We really need to examine what the internet means to us, what it gives us access to, what that does to youth culture. It's stuff that's always been there, but the internet has made it that much more visible."
"I still think we have a cultural issue where the tech has progressed 20 years, but the culture around it has only progressed ten," concludes Quinn. "So we've still got people who don't think that the internet matters, despite the huge impact it has on people's lives. They don't see internet harassment as a big deal because it's this magical alternate universe where your decisions don't matter. That cultural attitude needs to go away, because it stopped being true a long, long time ago."