Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Boycotts Aren't Harassment

Didn’t expect to write anything on #GamerGate again quite so soon, but ever since Intel pulled their ads from Gamasutra, I keep seeing people pushing this notion that the boycotts constitute some form of harassment of the sites against which they are targeted, or at the very least they’re an extreme reaction where a more temperate measure should be applied.

First of all, that word “harassment” has been tossed around far too loosely when it comes to #GamerGate, and it’s one of the main reasons we are where we are today. Dissent, disagreement, and desire for change in media does not constitute harassment, and while harassment can occur in and around a boycott, neither does a boycott, even one that involves targeting advertisers. In fact the boycott is one of the greatest tools consumers have to affect change without having to resort to harassment or worse, violence.

Now like any other tool, it can be abused, which is what that more nuanced argument about “extreme reactions” is trying to get at. For example, we saw it used against the Mozilla CEO for having supported the passage of a particular marriage law years prior and outside his role at the company. There we had consumers trying to punish a particular individual for a particular political belief that didn’t have any bearing on his duties at the company or affect how the company would or did operate. To be clear, people were well within their rights to boycott, and that boycott was not harassment, but specifically targeting an individual over political beliefs that don’t affect a company is not the best use of that tool as it will punish many innocent people in an attempt to bring about a political change that could be best accomplished through other means.

On Erik Kain’s latest stream, Greg Tito from The Escapist expressed that kind of sentiment by lamenting the potential financial impact on people working at a website because of #GamerGate supporters being upset at one post by one writer. It’s true that some perfectly innocent people will be harmed as a result of the boycotts, but in order to determine whether that unfortunate consequence is necessary and where the blame for it lies, we must examine how we got to this situation in the first place, which was not due to one post by one writer.

It was actually many posts by many writers across many sites. It was many editors at many sites allowing those posts to go up. It was many moderators at many sites quashing discussion and kicking people off of forums and out of comment sections.

Moreover, the content of those many posts at those many sites was not simply some benign difference of opinion over a video game or a political philosophy, but a direct attack on the very consumers who now boycott them. The many posts also came in a suspiciously short time frame, which suggested the collusion that was later evidenced by the GameJournoPros list.

And perhaps most importantly, the many people at the many sites have refused all other avenues for the redress of consumers' grievances. They didn’t allow consumers to express their anger directly via comments and forums. They didn’t issue apologies, counters to the opinions of their writers, or public reprimands of those writers. Many of the sites’ employees even took to Twitter to poke the bear. They did not fire or otherwise reprimand those that did so, nor did they address the original conflicts of interest that started the discussions in the first place. By closing comments and refusing to address the issue, the many people at the many sites effectively eliminated all other options for consumers other than to boycott, and so boycott they have.

It’s rather ironic to hear Tito express the sentiment he did, since The Escapist proved quite clearly how the websites could have diffused the situation for themselves by taking actions that most gamers have lauded as appropriate. They allowed discussion on their forums, and on two separate occasions that I can recall addressed the issue loudly and clearly, and they made changes to their policies as a result. And I suspect if it came down to it, they would’ve terminated a writer rather than allow harm to come to their whole site.

Thus with #GamerGate, people are not punishing a whole company for the thoughts of one individual. They are trying to affect an industry-wide change with the only option left available to them as a direct result of the actions of the very websites they are boycotting. Not only are they not abusing the tool, they are using it for precisely the purposes it is best suited.

And it’s working.

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