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July 26, 2021, 9:27 a.m.
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Female video game journalists on what to do when the mob comes for you

“Remember 98% of the time the people harassing you are not attempting to engage with your work in good faith.”

The weirdest harassment campaign Ash Parrish ever faced came after she wrote a cheeky, semi-facetious story for Kotaku about why the new Xbox Series X creeped her out.

Microsoft’s flagship machine is equipped with an exhaust port consisting of dozens of circular holes. Parrish has trypophobia, which is defined as “an aversion to the sight of irregular patterns or clusters of small holes or bumps.” [Ed. note: If you think this isn’t real, Google it. NOT GOOD.] The new console fit the bill perfectly, and Parrish wanted to have her fun. The blog post, entitled “The Xbox Series X Has Too Many Horrifying Holes,” possessed wit, repartee, and a light sardonic dusting aimed to disarm anyone inclined to take it too seriously.

Didn’t matter: The post metastasized through toxic Discord channels and imageboards — populated with the sort of people who make a hobby out of tormenting the journalists who cover the geek industries — and soon enough, Parrish found herself besieged.

[Read: “In believing it can’t happen to them, they believe, on some level, that you deserve what you are getting. But the reality is, it can happen to anyone.”]

“The way gamers responded you would have thought I shot Geoff Keighley on live television,” she told me. “People sent relentless emails to me that were nothing but trypo-trigger images. It was nuts.”

Parrish is a queer woman of color who reports on video games. This was not her first rodeo. Every once in a while, she writes something that snaps the tripwire, leading to an onslaught of harassment, brigading, and invasions of privacy (though Parrish tells me she’s blessed to have never been doxxed.) Like so many other writers on her beat, she’s been forced to develop a tight regimen of self-care protocols to survive those moments when the howling rancor comes to her doorstep.

Who could blame her? Over the last decade, pop fandom has emerged as the single most powerful and dangerous force on the internet. Whole factions of forum dwellers will weaponize their numbers in pursuit of a single-minded cause — be that the superiority of a favored boy band, or cinematic universe, or in Parrish’s case, the sanctity of the Xbox — and they’ll pour into your mentions, salivating, looking to get even for any perceived indiscretion. I’m a cis white man, and therefore I’ve experienced a fraction of the fear tactics endured by some of my colleagues from marginalized backgrounds, but I’ve still often found myself vibrating with anxiety on the evening before a story runs that could rankle the gamergaters or psycho-stans hiding in the mists. To go viral, at least in this capacity, is to briefly lose control of your life.

I wanted to know more about how my friends gird themselves through the crossfire. How do they hold on through those nervy afternoons and make it to the other side? How do they stay measured when they know an anonymous, untrackable mass is sifting through their paper trail? How do they remind themselves, as the storm gathers, that everything will eventually be okay?

Parrish has her methods down to an art. I’ve followed her long enough to know that whenever a padlock appears next to her Twitter name, it means some bespoke group of angry gamer men is on her tail for something she’s posted. That’s the advice she gives to any writer who’s found themselves at the center of a witch hunt: Use every option available to stem the tide.

“Lock your social media. Mute words and phrases,” said Parrish. “Make it so only people who follow you can speak with you. Remember 98% of the time the people harassing you are not attempting to engage with your work in good faith. As such, they do not demand your attention. You don’t have to respond to them or refute them.”

It’s a shame, continued Parrish, that the best advice she can dole out is to avoid the zeitgeist entirely. But that’s also the only real defense anyone has on social media, where the only actionable currency is attention. I think one of the first lessons any writer learns after being thrown into the fire is how to suss out legitimate criticism from the noise. In fact, the longer I’ve worked as a professional journalist, the more I’ve become inclined to let whatever is written on the page speak for itself, and watch the chips fall where they may. There’s a lot of value in learning from constructive feedback, but the more you explain yourself in the mentions, the quicker you get into trouble.

Ana Valens, who is the managing editor of We Got This Covered, previously the NSFW editor at The Daily Dot, and someone who has written extensively about trans issues in the video game business, echoed Parrish’s sentiment. She’s recently stepped back from social media as a whole, in an attempt to rewire her habitual Twitter and Instagram usage. “I don’t have the apps available on my phone, I check my notifications in bulk, and I log out of Twitter every time I use it,” she said. “These all deter me from constantly seeking out social media.”

This was a decision Valens made after discovering that she had become a “person of interest” among the reactionary contingency in the gaming community. Her byline has become somewhat infamous in that realm, and Valens is aware that her notoriety increases her vulnerability — it’s frightening to know that some bad actors have stoked an obsessive, entirely parasocial animus with your blog posts. So, when the timeline gets really bad, Valens employs a watchdog network of her trusted friends who have an eye out for her security. That affords her some bandwidth to unplug, kickback, and relax.

“I’ll lock down my accounts or ask a friend to watch out for any websites, communities, or users that are prone to harass me,” she said. “I’ll usually cancel plans for the day and find something at home to keep me busy, like playing video games or getting caught up with YouTube. But other than that, I try not to be too online, too available, too accessible. It’s a band-aid to a larger, systemic problem with social media enabling harassment, but it’s better than doomscrolling.”

Valens believes that any young journalist, especially those interested in covering the geek industries, should sweep through their digital footprints and remove any compromising information. Millennial writers were trained to be extraordinarily available on main, and Valens believes that to be a fraught, out-of-date instinct.

“Start creating a divide between personal and professional social media landscapes. Have two Twitter accounts, one that’s public-facing and one that’s not,” she said. “That not only encourages a good work-life balance, but it’s way easier to protect yourself from harassment if your most personal posts and photos are private, locked away on an Instagram or Twitter that only your most trustworthy friends have access to.”

In general, Valens has a pretty good sense of when she’s writing something that might fire up the agitators. It’s easy to prepare for the worst when you know it’s coming.

But the internet can get truly chaotic when backlash catches a writer by surprise, which happens more often than you’d think. A pleasant, mild article is robbed of its original context and agency, and the author finds themself injected into yet another arbitrary, parochial skirmish. Parrish told me that a YouTuber once made a 30-minute video about her after she wrote an innocent story calling for more adaptive customization accessories — like hearing aids and canes — in video game character creators. This is when the crossfire is at its most annoying and inscrutable. Sometimes you’re thrown into a war zone without ever picking a side.

“It’s so hard to determine what’s going to be interpreted as good-faith criticism, or what’s going to be interpreted as an attack, or clickbait. And once someone says, ‘Hey, this article is huge clickbait,’ anyone they share it with is going to be primed that way,” said Cass Marshall, a staffer at Polygon who writes video game commentary. “You have to be aware of how you’re going to be read. How is someone who actively hates your website going to read your article? To a certain extent, that’s impossible. So you’re kinda just waiting for the other shoe to drop, all the time.”

Marshall notes one of the core ironies at play here. Whether we like it or not, members of the media have been cast as the primary vectors in the culture war. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing superheated political news for CNN or a silly Xbox blog for Kotaku — as journalists, we’re always a tweet away, and that’s made us one of the easiest targets for tepid, deployable political anger.

“When a topic becomes so fraught, I don’t want to get into the discourse. And that sucks, because ideally I should be hearing from people who disagree with me,” added Marshall. “I want to hear their perspectives. But when the feedback is not about the game I’m writing about, or the piece itself, and it’s about this other, greater hostility, there’s nothing to gain from that. Even the good feedback is drowned out.”

Perhaps someday the pendulum will swing back, and a chill won’t run up our spine as the numbers in our notifications tab tick past the double-digits. I think we all yearn for a future where the temperature is turned down, and we can actually hear our readers once again. Until then, journalists will hold onto a fundamental fact of life: No matter how bad it gets, the storm always passes.

“Don’t get me wrong, the sustained impact of harassment and online abuse is a real thing — I’m an ongoing target. The pain lingers beyond the initial attack. And I think we’re only just realizing that online harassment is correlated with PTSD and CPTSD. But there’s a lot of truth to the fact that, for most journalists, the mob will gradually forget about your article as another, juicier target drops,” said Valens. “There’s a lot of healing that has to happen after you’re no longer the main character, but at least it’s over. It’s comforting when you feel like it will never end.”

Luke Winkie is a journalist and former pizza maker in New York City. He has previously written for Nieman Lab about Mel Magazine, Stat, Newsmax and OAN, and Study Hall.

POSTED     July 26, 2021, 9:27 a.m.
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