/ Jay Allen / 7 am Wed, Jan 14 2015
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  • How crowdfunding helps haters profit from harassment

    How crowdfunding helps haters profit from harassment

    Meet the professional victimizer.

    Here's the fashionable anti-feminist narrative: any woman who complains about mistreatment is a “professional victim" doing it only to promote herself. Speaking out against harassment, in this view, is evidence of an ulterior motive, as though ending that mistreatment wasn’t enough of a motivation on its own.

    These women—and it is almost always women—are accused of inciting this mistreatment in order to profit from decrying it. Though these accusations are transparently unfair and untrue, the trolls using them to attack vulnerable people are nothing new. What is new is the cottage industry of professional victimizers, using crowdfunding tools to capitalize on their infamy and devote even more time to harassment.

    Most of these professional victimizers follow a template laid down by the white nationalist troll Andrew “weev” Aurenheimer, whose attacks on programming instructor and author Kathy Sierra were reported in the New York Times in 2008. The goal is to marginalize and silence a vulnerable person by turning harassment into a game of one-upsmanship, then inviting everyone to join in. Diffusing the harassment not only diffuses the responsibility, but also creates a feedback loop of harassers trying to outdo and emulate one another.

    This angry-mob tactic thrives. For example, GamerGate started out as — and continues to be—an angry mob targeting Zoe Quinn, an independent game developer, over allegations made by her ex-boyfriend, Eron Gjoni. The attacks soon spread to target other women in the video game industry.

    But these mobs aren’t just about revenge, narcissism, or bigotry. With the addition of open-ended crowdfunding tools such as Patreon, Gratipay, and GoFundMe, it’s possible to turn the attention these organizers seek into funding, turning the hobby of harassment into a job. Some of the most successful have been the anti-feminist, misogynist instigators of GamerGate.

    Many of these professional victimizers are anti-feminist video bloggers, who combine the income from YouTube video ads with funding through Patreon, a service which allows people who create content to charge subscribers per-release or per-month. One of the highest-profile examples is atheist and anti-feminist video blogger Phil “thunderf00t” Mason, formerly of Freethought Blogs. In addition to his promotion of atheism and debunking of pseudoscience, he focuses on attacking feminism and particular feminist personalities. In particular, he’s focused on video game cultural critic and video blogger Anita Sarkeesian, making multiple videos with names like “‘Feminism’ Vs FACTS (Anita Sarkeesian DESTROYED!)” and “Anita Sarkeesian- BUSTED!”

    “Hell hath no fury like a lover’s scorn”

    Most of these videos rely heavily on editing short segments out of context and belaboring them, but that’s typical for the level of discourse in YouTube video blogs. What makes Mason different is that he actively exhorts his viewers to express their disagreement with personal abuse. In a video titled “Anita Sarkeesian and the BITCHY tweets”, he tells his viewers, “People call [Sarkeesian] a bitch because they think [she] acted like a bitch. That’s really not sexism, but a conclusion.” He describes this abuse as “part of the public marketplace of ideas”. And his viewers take that message to heart, often even citing thunderf00t by name while heaping personal abuse on Sarkeesian. For these videos, which often have hundreds of thousands of views, he gets approximately $1.50 USD per thousand views (recent estimates of YouTube income ranges from $0.60 to $5 per thousand), plus more than $2500 per video through Patreon.

    Mason—and others, like Jordan Owen and Davis Aurini, planning a feature-length documentary titled The Sarkeesian Effect—have targeted Sarkeesian for more than a year; they only joined up with GamerGate to promote their already-existing anti-feminist agenda.

    That doesn’t mean that the instigators of GamerGate didn’t also take advantage. One of those instigators, game video blogger MundaneMatt, encouraged GamerGate from early on. His most successful video (and only post to top 100,000 views) is “Hell hath no fury like a lover’s scorn”, which uncritically repeats Gjoni’s various allegations against Quinn. He also attempted to organize a “protest” at Penny Arcade Expo, a major video game convention, featuring people wearing t-shirts repeating Gjoni’s allegations. His later GamerGate-related videos would not match his initial success, but they remain markedly more popular than his previous videos, and were enough to increase his Patreon payments from $20 monthly at the beginning of August, before GamerGate began, to about $100 monthly at present.

    It's hardly enough to live on. But it is enough to encourage him, and other YouTube bloggers such as Sargon of Akkad—who earns more than $600 per week through Patreon—to continue to attack women with no accountability other than to their own audience.

    Patreon focuses on people who are creating content, for whatever value of content each creator might choose. As hateful as people like Phil Mason and MundaneMatt can be, they are still creating something tangible that an audience desires. GoFundMe is even more open-ended than that. GoFundMe allows users to set up fundraisers, usually for unexpected disasters like medical emergencies, house fires, and so forth. It also allows users to set up legal funds, which launched it into the news last August when users set up a legal defense fund for police officer Darren Wilson after he shot teenager Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO, and raised more than $400,000 amid a storm of racist comments from donators.

    While the money was ostensibly for legal fees, GoFundMe doesn’t enforce that in any way. Once they’re paid, users can use the money for whatever they like. In late September, at the height of GamerGate frenzy, Eron Gjoni set up a GoFundMe account for a legal fund for the “legal battle” related to his allegations against Zoe Quinn. While the account was later closed for an unspecified violation of GoFundMe’s terms of service, he still took home $1689 after fees.

    One of the worst offenders, one so toxic that it has already been forced from one crowdfunding service, is 8chan, also known as Infinitechan, an anonymous imageboard similar to 4chan. Founded by Fredrick Brennan, it has faced troubles for its boards catering to pedophilia and bestiality [NSFW link], which resulted in Brennan being forced off of Patreon. Earlier this week, its domain name was briefly seized by its registrar, citing "child abuse", forcing it to a new address.

    “The truth about Zoe Quinn is that every woman in the industry is one unhinged ex-partner away from being Zoe Quinn”

    8chan also hosts so-called “raid” boards, such as /baphomet/, where users spread personal information (called “doxx”) and organize harassment against targets. Brennan’s official stance is that nothing illegal goes on in these boards and any illegal threads should be reported, but this doesn’t appear to happen very often. In practice, there are numerous threads in /baphomet/ digging into the personal lives of targets, discussing fraudulently ordering pizzas or magazines to their homes, or, in the most extreme cases, calling in false police tips to get SWAT teams to storm the homes of their targets, known as “swatting”. Despite this, Fredrick Brennan still has an account on Gratipay, a service similar to Patreon, although that account may be under review. The account is ostensibly to support the development of the software he uses to operate 8chan, and the link to the Gratipay account is posted at the top of every page on 8chan.

    GoFundMe and Patreon illustrate how, even if services ultimately remove toxic users, they still profit in the meantime. GoFundMe and several other similar crowdfunding services, such as flexible funding campaigns on crowdfunding site Indiegogo, transfer funds into users’ accounts immediately. While his account was under review, Brennan used his Patreon page to advertise both his Gratipay account and his Bitcoin address for donations. Harassers still get paid, due to the slowness of the crowdfunders’ response.

    Game developer Elizabeth Sampat observed that “the truth about Zoe Quinn is that every woman in the industry is one unhinged ex-partner away from being Zoe Quinn”.

    All it takes is one person with an agenda, and time on their hands, to ruin someone’s life. These are the people these crowdfunding services such as Patreon, Gratipay, and GoFundMe have partnered with. They are not mere users, in the way that someone might use the telephone or Facebook, nor mere customers, as with a bank or Paypal. These services handling the billing—and in some cases the promotion and distribution—of the business of encouraging angry mobs to harass people.

    In a moral, if not legal sense, they are the business partners of people who profit from intentionally inflicting human misery. Crowdfunding services have the duty not only to be aware of who they are doing business with, but also to care when their rules are flaunted. If they don’t, ruining a woman’s life will remain gainful self-employment for these professional victimizers.

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