It was an assault rifle being fired in a pizzeria that signaled the severity of Facebook’s fake news problem. Call it Pizzagate – a right-wing conspiracy theory based on a baseless lie by 4chan. The rifle being fired was far from the only danger to employees and the owner of Comet Ping Pong – they’ve faced death threats and violations of their private lives for weeks. The harassment and threats have now spilled over to affect neighboring businesses and the people who own and work in them.
The completely baseless allegations claim that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring through a pizzeria in DC with the aid of her former campaign manager, John Podesta. The theory started on 4chan, then spread onto Twitter after a white supremacist account picked up traction. Pizzaria owner James Alefantis has tried to get the help of the FBI, and has asked that social media platforms take down posts spreading the baseless conspiracy
It’s a situation that will feel familiar to anyone that followed Gamergate, a scandal that rocked the videogame industry throughout 2014 and 2015. Women had their private lives violated in an effort to root out non-existent issues with “ethics in game journalism.” Many received hundreds of death and rape threats, myself included. Lives were destroyed and careers were ruined. Many women also asked for help from the FBI as well, though nothing was ever done. Social media sites like Reddit were completely ineffectual in taking down private and defamatory information about women targeted by the hate group.
The same angry resentment that won Trump the electoral college is what fueled Gamergate, a seething cultural anger at our slow societal push for inclusion. And now, Gamergate’s tactics have gone mainstream – poisoning American politics. The same system that failed women in the game industry seem likely to fail the people targeted by Trump supporters.
This week Facebook did admit they have a role to play in stopping the spread of fake news. “We had resisted having standards about whether something’s newsworthy because we did not consider ourselves a service that was predominantly for the distribution of news. And that was wrong,” said Facebook executive Elliot Schrage. “We have a responsibility here. I think we recognize that.”
But recognition is not action. The core of Facebook’s fake news problem is about in user engagement. People share stories that communicate who they are to their friends. If a parent shares a story about the cost of child care, they’re not neutrally serving as an editor – they are communicating what their values are, what’s important to them. While that might be a fine system when the subject is a brand of videogame, in the world of politics it guarantees we’ll see things that reconfirm everything we already believe.
These systems built to feed our confirmation biases are particularly popular in male-dominated spaces on the internet. One of the side effects of women being discriminated against in software engineering is that our information-sharing systems were built by men for the comfort of other men. Facebook is an excellent example – but it’s not the only one.
The overwhelmingly male social media site Reddit operates of the concept of upvotes, stories and comments that the community agrees are sent higher – and comments that the community disagrees with are often hidden from view altogether. As a result, these communities are built to be hostile to women – ask any woman that’s pointed out sexism on Hacker News or tried to participate in an open-source software project.
It hasn’t been covered in mainstream press, but even Gamergate has long struggled with its own fake news problem.Their Reddit headquarters often features breathless headline like, “Pathological Liar Brianna Wu caught lying again to scam for Patreon Cash!” but the story will have no evidence of the claim, and often little to do with the headline. Eventually, Gamergate leaders had to step in and mass delete these posts in an effort to bring the site back to reality.
The owner of Comet Ping Pong likened his efforts to clear his name to “trying to shoot a swarm of bees with one gun.” It’s a dilemma I know firsthand. Throughout 2015 and 2016, my company hired a person whose job was report doxes and harassment on Twitter. But the process was time consuming and ineffectual. Some days, we would file hundreds of reports. Of those, between 10 to 70 percent would have actions taken – and hundreds of new accounts would appear the next day. Eventually, we came to the conclusion nothing could be done.
America is a society rampant with gun violence compared to the rest of the developed world. Over 33,000 are fatally shot every year, 11,000 of them being homicides. It’s completely rational for people targeted with fake news like Comet Ping Pong to fear for their lives. It’s also completely rational to expect the Trump administration to do nothing to stop these tactics. Sadly, your best hope isn’t law enforcement – it’s having the luck of never being targeted in the first place. That’s little comfort to James Alefanti, whose only crime was participating in our democracy by exchanging a few emails about a Clinton Fundraiser.
One of the most blusterous phrases of the fringe right is “free speech,” something they purport to champion. The sad truth is, now that Gamergate tactics have been unleashed on the rest of America – the cost of speaking out has never been higher.
Copyright Women’s Media Center, 2016. For reprint, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.