Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Digital rhetoric in the days of -chans

This year I learned something new about how people behave online, and I can thank gamergate for that. Since September, when I realised DiGRA had been connected to DARPA through some serious mental gymnastics, I have been both talked about, had anonymous emails, been threatened personally and generally as part of DiGRA and dismissed by this odd "movement" or "hashtag". I have gotten away with no real aggression though, compared to friends and colleagues such as Mia Consalvo and Adrienne Shaw.

I have written about the main gamergate misconceptions about DiGRA, what they believe is the scandal of peer-reviewing criticism and the connection to DARPA and the so-called feminist ideologue take-over earlier, so this isn't a rehash of those points. This is about the particular rhetoric device used online, of ignorance, repetition and conspiracy hypothesis. It was pointed out to me on Twitter that I shouldn't call an insubstantiated assumption theories, but hypothesis, and yes, thank you stranger, that is correct, the assumptions adding up about DiGRA in the different gamergate discussion fora are not theories. One of their main claims can be summed up in this post on twitter. Here they put the blame for all the articles pointed to on that list on a few articles by Consalvo and Shaw, criticising the concept "gamer". (Shaw in ADA, Shaw at DiGRA, Consalvo in ADA), and claims that DiGRA could have "stopped this" - as in stopped gamergate, I presume.

But let us first look at the fora where gamergate is active.
Gamergate started, as far as it is possible to put a finger on it without defining "started", in /pol on 4chan, a discussion site for political discussions which are dismissed elsewhere. Here you can find speculation on race, the red scare, and, relevant in this case, the Frankfurt School conspiracy hypothesis. 4chan, and later 8chan, are open discussion sites where all who discuss do so anonymously, and where anonymity is cherished. To learn more about -chan culture, see the storify from A man in black and a discussion of it by Anders Sandberg. Both of these demonstrate how technology and moderation together facilitates a style of discussion that is insular, exclusive and supports a particular type of amnesia.

This amnesia is necessary for the repetition that is particular to gamergate rhetoric. Since the -chans do not keep threads available to the public once a certain limit of content has been reached, previous discussions disappear to the public eye quickly. This is a feature, not a bug, if you want to control the "narrative" and avoid displaying previous debunking or mistakes. The DiGRA discussions keep coming up there, and new people keep coming in to ask for "old information on DiGRA." They are then carefully served a mixture of increasingly elaborate claims, starting with the claim that DiGRA is financed by DARPA, and supports Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn, as well as the game developers Silverstring media. The "proof" for this is a collage produced by one of the anonymous on these boards, where they show that at some point, some of the persons gamergate have decided are very important (Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu) have been in touch with some people who have also been in touch with DiGRA. The nature of academic associations become proof of deep and sinister conspiracies, conspiracies that leads to politically correct computer games and, most recently according to /gamergate on 8chan, a takeover of the US government's plan for their "common core" curriculum for education, through increased use of electronic resources and gamification in education. Incidentally, DiGRA is a place where you may find some of the best informed and outspoken critics of gamification anywhere, but that doesn't stop the conspiracy assumptions. There have been several threads about DiGRA, but here is today's hits on a search for DiGRA on 8chan board /gamergate, as well as an image that followed one of those posts. This is not the most inflammatory or aggressive set of posts, no addresses revealed, very little cursing or attacks on the women they have attacked previously, but it demonstrates their obsession with finding out how DiGRA controls the development of US common core.

So, let's look at these conspiracies.
Of course, the nature of deep and sinister conspiracies means that any front has to be innocent. "What? Us? We just had lunch, we never discussed how to control the western world." And as such, an academic meeting place is perfect. People travel there from all over the world, and do - what? Listen to each other and talk? If you are unemployed, or employed in a job where you have to come back from any travels with proof of having achieved something, closed a contract, made a sale, brookered a deal, the very loose, almost flimsy, achievements of academic networking appears incomprehensible and, possibly, quite scary. After all, we present for 20 minutes, but spend days in some remote location such as a mountains above Salt Lake City. And the interesting thing is - I can't prove that my colleagues are not discussing how to change US education. Actually, a lot of them probably did. Discussing the educational system is both a favourite topic and in the job description of academics. We are supposed to teach, care about teaching, and research ways to teach better. Some of us focus on how to do that better with our own topics, some of us look at how our own topics can contribute to better teaching in general. I am pretty certain that the educational systems of every nation of every DiGRA member has at some point been discussed. Which brings us to another aspect of the questions asked by gamergate - who are really the DiGRA members? That is a very tricky one, that will make it hard for gamergate to get anywhere. DiGRA membership fluctuates wildly. People will skip paying fees for years, then do it again when they go to a conference. It isn't a static thing, so any membership lists will be outdated very quickly. This means, of course, that it is almost as hard to pin down DiGRA as to pin down gamergate - if you say you identify as a DiGRA member, then you're pretty much it. If you want to be able to prove it, you should pay and show off the receipt, but without the receipt, you can't prove or disprove membership at any given point in time - except for the conferences. Pretty much everybody at a conference are DiGRA members - because it's cheaper that way. And that lasts for a year.

But is this a conspiracy? DiGRA doesn't happen in secret, and doesn't hide anything. Gamergate believes DiGRA hides the money trail to DARPA, because they can't find it. Those of us who have any knowledge about how a Nordic no-profit organisation works, not to mention DiGRA, know that there is no such money trail, or the Finnish government would have found it and taxed it to pieces. You don't mess with Nordic no-profit rules, as they are very carefully watched to avoid political corruption and public spending fraud. The Finnish government is actually gamergate's best friend in this case, as it will not be difficult for a savvy Finn to find and read the financial statements of DiGRA. So when no such money trail has come to light, it's because it doesn't exist.

So why keep harping on the importance of a small research association? ("Small" is in the international context. Compare it to ICA, and DiGRA is tiny.) Because DiGRA is a soft and friendly target. There are no lawyers lined up to sue the many who spread lies about DiGRA. There are no professionals publishing statements and pushing back against gamergate. The closest is a television appearance of Mia Consalvo on Canadian television, where they talk about the gamergate controversy. If you need confirmation that this is taken very badly by those who identify and speak for gamergate, read the comments to that youtube link. Since Consalvo is currently the president of DiGRA, such appearances become "official DiGRA standpoints," even if they are simply the words of one game resarcher, not acting as president or speaking for the association, making DiGRA appear dangerous, powerful, and with "secret connections to the press."

In short: when you live with the belief that there is a conspiracy, everything appears to feed the conspiracy.
There are no member lists of DiGRA? They must be supressed and hidden!
There is no proof of money passing from DARPA to DiGRA? It has been hidden!
There are no transcripts of the meetings where DiGRA plans to take over the common core? They are kept secret!

And if somebody accept that there may actually not be a deliberate plan from DiGRA to crush gamers nor to change the western world as we know it, that doesn't matter. If you go back to this very dense and hard-to-read image, post 6 points out that it doesn't matter if DiGRA just does its thing and isn't an evil conspiracy, because it's part of the greater plan to destroy western civilisation. And this is where the conspiracy hypotesis turns very dark indeed.

The cultural marxism conspiracy is the idea that academic marxism, multiculturalism and cultural criticism based on the understanding of cultural hegemonies and cultural bias (ethnicity, class, gender to mention some) is a corrupted process of intellectual control. According to this, all who question the priviledged position of white, christian males are traitors or enemies. The logic behind this theory has lead to horrible tragedies, as I as Norwegian can not forget. This links gamergate to a line of thinking which defies all facts we can present, because the facts don't matter. DiGRA is a research association working out of mainly western universities, promoting cultural diversity and the understanding of an increasingly diverse culture. According to this understanding, everything any scholar of the humanities or social sciences does is worse than useless. They - we - are dangerous.

And this is the scary part. I am not afraid of gamergate calling my boss. I told him about the movement and the accusations, and he lit up and told me he just couldn't wait to see those complaints based on me doing my job. But I am afraid of some crazy believer in those conspiracies deciding to act on their own. That has happened before. It will happen again.

This isn't a new fear. Celebrities have always been in danger of unbalanced minds. The "new" part of it is how people become celebrities. Zoe Quinn dated the wrong guy. She might not have handled that perfectly, but who does? Now she is in hiding, because of the aggression aimed at her. Some Internet subcultures create involuntary celebrities like her, then build huge complex networks of assumptions about what they have done, and punish them for these imagined acts. The truth is unimportant, because it is possible to construct what is almost an alternate reality based on forcefully fitting a lack of evidence into existing assumptions.

Gamergate is a lesson in the rhetoric of how to force a lack of facts to fit a hypothesis. As such it has taught me more than I ever wanted to learn, and I will keep studying the structures of online communication it has opened up to me. It has confirmed in an unexpected manner that understanding game culture is a lot more important than even I believed. And I had dedicated my career to it!