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On privacy, research, and privacy research.

Book review: Crash Override

— updated

Over the holidays, I read Zoë Quinn's book, Crash Override. Zoë Quinn is an independent games developer. After a gigantic harassment campaign known as GamerGate targeted her, she became an activist against online hate. She then funded an association to help other victims, the Crash Override Network. In this book, she tells the story of this huge campaign, and gives her thoughts on how to prevent similar horrors from happening.

Crash Override cover

This book is eye-opening, well-written, and inspiring. Because of the difficult topic, it's not an easy read. She tells her story in a very personal way, describing what she went through when thousands of trolls were harassing her and her close ones. The book is worth a read just for this testimony. It slaps you in the face, reminding you that what happens online is as real as what happens in the physical world. It gives you a healthy dose of empathy towards people you interact with on the Internet. Even if you're not an harasser, it's so easy to forget the actual person behind the nickname or the avatar…

This intense dose of empathy is critically valuable if you build tech products, or work in tech policy. Quinn describes everything that went wrong not only with the humans, but also with the technology. It's horrifying and infuriating. Popular tech products and social networks simply suck at dealing with abuse and harassment on their platforms. Quinn is doing an excellent job at analyzing their flaws, and detailing what can be explained by cluelessness and what is the sign of truly rotten ideologies. If you're working in tech, you really really really should learn about these issues. Go read this book.

It's chilling to read Quinn's descriptions of the mass movements behind GamerGate. It serves as a good reminder of how powerful and devastating group dynamics can be. Some of the things harassers did sound completely unreal. Quinn has to explain her situation to many people, and they often don't understand nor accept it: it sounds so ridiculous. It's difficult to believe actual humans would harass people this way. Especially people they've never met, in such a violent and persistent way.

But online trolls don't see their target as human, either. Instead, victims are seen as an abstract concept of "evil". Abusers think that everything they do to their victims is well-deserved. And the more they fight evil, the more feel like "heroes", fighters on the good side in the grand scheme of things. This is nothing new: anti-immigration rhetoric is a classical example of this phenomenon. Nonetheless, GamerGate really was the symptom of something profoundly rotten in parts of society. Victims realized that, of course, but nobody listened to them…

After talking about GamerGate, Quinn explains how to efficiently fight online hate. Given her personal experience and her work as an activist, she's uniquely qualified. She developed a set of principles, and offers concrete advice both for victims, bystanders, as well as technologists.

The technical advice for victims (or for people potentially at risk, which really means everyone) is sound, but doesn't get into much detail. If that's what you're looking for, consider reading The Smart Girl's Guide to Privacy (by Violet Blue). You can also check out the resources on the Crash Override's Network website.

The "human" advice, on the other end, is quite complete and excellent. Recommendations are concrete and sound (typically not "just go offline, stupid"). Many common reactions, both for victims and bystanders, are counter-productive. Quinn does an excellent job at detailing these and explaining what to do instead.

The end of the book surprised me. Quinn writes a whole section about empathy towards harassers and abusers. She explains that there was a time where she was an angry troll, posting nasty comments to people she didn't know online. Like her own abusers, she was doing this for very normal and human reasons. Status, positive feedback from your peers, technical prowess, acceptance within a social group… Even if the result is incredibly evil, this is very normal from a psychological perspective. Especially now, with all the gamification (and financial rewards!) of social networks.

This last part of her testimony really resonated with me. I was the same when I was younger. I browsed 4chan regularly. I was only a lurker: my English was bad, so I was afraid of people mocking me. Nonetheless, I found comfort in the nihilism, the irreverence, and the sense that it was okay to be different and weird. I almost never talked to anyone, but I still felt like these were people who could understand me. All the racism, sexism, general awfulness… Even that felt okay. It was obviously ironic1, and there was also a lot of self-deprecating humor. But mostly, laughing at everything just came with the nihilism. Putting groups of people I felt like I didn't understand (especially women) in "enemy" boxes was very, very easy.

Then, my life got better and I progressively stopped going there. But reading Quinn's own account of being an online troll made me wonder: would I have taken part in GamerGate, had it been earlier? If I had had just a little bit more bottled-up anger and awkwardness? If my English had been better? I certainly wouldn't have done the right thing — even as a shy lurker, I didn't do anything right back then. This was a harsh (and unexpected) realization. For me, it was a valuable take-away. If you partly recognize yourself in what I clumsily tried to describe there, I would also advise reading this book.

Anyway, she ends the book saying that more abuse or violence towards harassers aren't going to make the hate go away. Instead, Quinn encourages speaking up in a non-confrontational way, listening and empathizing… After everything she went through, this is nothing short of inspiring!

  1. It was not. I was extremely dumb, and extremely privileged, so I don't think I realized that. Or, more probably, I chose not to. Not seeing how wrong it was, not speaking up… This enabled real and horrific violence. I regret this time a lot, and feel ashamed when thinking of it, but there is no excuse for any of it. 

All opinions here are my own, not my employers'.
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