One Woman's New Tool to Stop Gamergate Harassment on Twitter

A gamer wears headphones while playing a game at the 2014 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, June 10, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcor

For many members of the public, the amorphous online movement "Gamergate," which earned substantial coverage by the mainstream media and broadcast TV this fall, is over. Its advocates' indignant rage over what they saw as a lack of ethics in video games journalism has fizzled. Perhaps the release of a new title in the popular Call of Duty series has provided a distraction. Or maybe the rage of the movement's members wasn't sustainable in the long run without a smoking gun to hold aloft.

Some can't move on, though, because Gamergate was not a war, but a front in a larger war that continues. It is the culture war, as Kyle Wagner wrote for Deadspin in October, and the culture war—the ongoing battle between conservatives and liberals over abortion, gay rights, guns, et al.—will never end, because neither side will ever concede defeat.

For people like Randi Harper, who works as an engineer at a video game development company in San Francisco, the culture war rages every day online. Harper, 33, says the tech industry has not always been friendly to women. She recently posted a story on her blog about the harassment she has experienced as a woman in the industry, both on Twitter and in IRC chat rooms. Almost immediately, she began receiving tweets about her post. "I received over 70,000 mentions in six weeks," she tells Newsweek. "Some of them were supportive, but a huge number were negative."

"This is a big problem in our culture," she says. "When women speak out, they're usually shouted down."

Often, that negativity will play out on Twitter, but Harper doesn't put the blame entirely on the social media tool. From an engineering perspective, it's difficult to curb online harassment, she says. Writing code to preemptively filter out harassing tweets is a herculean task. How, for instance, does one create an algorithm that can tell the difference between sarcasm, satire, and genuine meanness?

Harper tried to tackle this problem by creating a tool of her own to curb Gamergate-related Twitter harassment. That tool, called "Gamergate autoblocker," works not by identifying threatening tweets individually—"That's a job for a scalpel," she says—but by automatically blocking any Twitter user who follows two or more so-called "ringleaders" in the Gamergate movement. People like Milo Yiannopoulos, an associate editor at Breitbart, a right-wing news site, and Mike Cernovich, a California attorney who challenged a Gawker writer to a charity boxing match over his Gamergate coverage.

Harper uses another tool, called "Block Together," to make the time-consuming process of blocking hundreds or thousands of accounts easy for others who are tired of hearing about Gamergate. With Block Together, every time Harper blocks an account, every user subscribed to Gamergate autoblocker also blocks that account, automatically. More than 1,000 people subscribe to Harper's block list, according to her last count.

Block Together was developed by Jacob Hoffman-Andrews, a former product security engineer at Twitter who now works at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Of course, not everyone who follows two or more Gamergate "ringleaders" is necessarily a member of the movement, which means some people who have never sent a single harassing tweet may end up on the block list. The official Twitter account for Kentucky Fried Chicken wound up on Harper's list, for example. And because of how the autoblocker works, those merely interested in following the ongoing discussion surrounding Gamergate are likely to end up on the block list as well. A procedure to remove one's name from the block list (called "whitelisting") does exist, but users are at the mercy of an appeals group. The group will comb through a user's timeline to make sure they haven't sent harassing tweets to anyone; if the user checks out, their name is removed from the list.

Harper's approach, and the onerous process for getting off the block list, has ruffled some feathers in the gaming community. The International Game Developers Association briefly included Harper's tool on a list of online harassment resources. Ironically, Harper's algorithm flagged the chairman of IGDA Puerto Rico, Roberto Rosario, who threatened to resign over the kerfuffle.

"They didn't quite understand every aspect of the tool," Harper told Newsweek. The IGDA has since removed Gamergate Autoblocker from its list.

Rosario's complaint wasn't so much that he was blocked; it was that having one's name show up on the Gamergate block list has the undesirable effect of making it look like one is affiliated with the movement even if one isn't.

Harper admits that Gamergate Autoblocker is more akin to a sledgehammer than a fine tool: She is willing to block out more than 9,000 Twitter users just so she doesn't have to hear from a vocal few hundred. People who have never tweeted a single harassing thing end up blocked by nearly a thousand people, including many influential decision makers in the gaming industry. Gamergaters are worried Harper's block list may turn into a black list, and anyone who appears on it will be persona non grata in the gaming industry. Harper attributes this fear to a quirk in her initial code. "The block list was in a file called blacklist.txt," she says. She has since changed the file name.

Twitter is not the only place where women are harassed online. In a Pew Research poll released in October that tracked online harassment, a group of female respondents aged 18-24 reported experiencing severe harassment at disproportionately high levels: 26 percent claimed to have been stalked online, compared with 8 percent of all respondents, and 25 percent claimed to have been sexually harassed online, compared with 6 percent of all respondents.

While Twitter may not be the sole locus for gendered harassment, the company's process for dealing with harassment can be onerous.

"When content is reported to us that violates our rules, which include a ban on violent threats and targeted abuse, we suspend those accounts," a Twitter spokesperson told Newsweek.

To do such reporting, Twitter requires users to submit a report for each harassing tweet received. For users receiving hundreds or thousands of such tweets, that process can be too time-consuming to be useful. Twitter also requires a direct link to the harassing tweet. If a harasser has deleted the tweet, the company will not accept a screenshot as evidence of its existence. Even when a complaint is successful, Twitter's policy is to ban the harassing user, which does not prevent the same user from simply registering another account to continue the harassment.

For now, despite their flaws, tools like Harper's may be the best thing women in tech have to fight harassment. "Gamergate's going to be gone eventually," Harper told Newsweek, "but it's not just about Gamergate. It's a larger cultural problem."