For the last ten years-or-so I’ve been convinced that governments would be responsible for the death of the Internet As We Know It: ever-encroaching censorship and surveillance transforming the promise of the open internet into something darker, more capitalist, more consumerist and, essentially, more 20th century. Here’s me on the Digital Economy Bill, and then on the good ol’ Twitter Joke Trial. That’s a lotta words.

Then so-called GamerGate happened, late last year. An amorphous bunch of apparent activists rose up, ostensibly to decry ethics in games journalism but in reality taking every opportunity to harass female game devs, game journalists and gamers, and anybody who supported them. Rape threats. Death threats. It was the abuse unleashed upon Anita Sarkeesian writ large, with a broad brush. The aggressors wielded the term ‘Social Justice Warrior’ as if it were something to be ashamed of. And all the while they claimed the moral high ground, even while forcing planes to land and issuing genuine terrorist threats to universities. The actions of GamerGate spoke far louder than its words.

It was very, very easy for me to label ‘GamerGaters’ as right wing, reactionary, misogynist idiots. Anti-progressives who hate equality, hate that gay people can get married, who consider all Muslims to be dangerous, who wouldn’t mind so much if slavery had never been abolished, or if women had never been given the vote. Etc etc.

Very, very easy to do that. It’s such a classic stereotype, and they fit so snugly and look so cosy and warm when you put them in it.

But now Joss Whedon has left Twitter after receiving a torrent of abuse and death threats, because some people didn’t like some bits of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Brace yourself, then take a look at the sheer ugliness of it all.

UPDATE: Whedon has clarified that he didn’t leave Twitter because of the abuse. That doesn’t change the fact that the abuse is there, though, so I’ll carry on…

Some Avengers: Age of Ultron spoilers to come, in the form of dubious metaphor. Beware (both the spoilers and the prose).

Note how Whedon is accused of being racist, and misogynist. This is a guy who is very outspoken on women’s rights issues. This is the guy who made two successful TV action shows with female leads. His male-led TV shows are populated with powerful, rounded women who have agency.

Avengers 2 ain’t perfect, and it doesn’t get everything right with regards to its female characters either (Hawkeye’s wife is basically nothing more than Hawkeye’s Wife). But the accusations thrown at Whedon over the handling of Black Widow’s character are so far off-base that the entire affair verges on parody. It reads like a GamerGate spoof, with delusional progressives taking up arms.

But it isn’t a spoof. The campaign against Whedon is populated by people who genuinely seem to believe they’re defending women’s rights. And they’re doing so with death threats and hate and bile. The tone and words and attitude is identical to GamerGate, but from the opposite side of the fence. It’s the truest example of how diametrically opposing extremist views essentially loop around and join together, becoming indistinguishable in their unpleasant tactics and self-justifications.

What connects both cases and all of the unpleasant people giving them momentum is that it is the internet troll turned into a gestalt being. Individual internet trolls have no power, being mostly harmless, pitiable creatures that are safely ignored. I’ve been part of numerous online communities, going back to usenet and through various forums, and they’ve all seen their fair share of trolls pass by. With individual trolls the old adage “don’t feed the trolls” makes perfect sense, and works: they either go away very quickly, or you actually have a chance of appealing to their inner humanity and sense of compassion. Trolling seems to require a general disregard for reality and evidence, and usually stems from an unrelated problem or insecurity, so given a chance to highlight some of that, lone trolls often rethink their attitudes, even becoming valuable members of the communities they previously harassed.

Then Twitter happened. A hugely exciting platform, jumping out of tech conferences and setting the internet ablaze during the Arab Spring. It seemed like the ultimate form of expression, almost impossible for governments to stop and censor. When Israel was blasting the crap out of Gaza, it lost its coordinated propaganda war to individual citizen journalists tweeting photos from the scene.

Exciting tech often goes a bit awry. Hey, just ask Tony Stark. His creation of Ultron doesn’t go smoothly at first. What should have been a benevolent force turns into something violent and dangerous, with Stark losing control. Ultron is out there in the world and he can’t do anything about it. Ultron replicates, spreading its ideas of hatred like a virus, building an army of sub-Ultrons.

The same thing has happened to the lone internet troll, who is no longer alone. It started in niche communities on the wild frontiers of the web, which revel in antagonistic behaviour. Their composition was complex and not all bad, but the force of the internet hive mind was emerging. One troll with a stupid idea is powerless. 100 trolls with a stupid idea are dangerous.

Twitter escalated everything. That immediacy which makes it so wonderful also gives the trolls free reign and the ability to target instantaneously, simultaneously and en masse in a coordinated manner, washing over both prominent figures (as with Whedon) and lower profile people (as with Zoe Quinn). There’s very little that can be done to stop it, and those under the crosshairs find their inbox swamped with pure, unfiltered hatred of a sort rarely encountered in any other part of society.

A lot of great game journalists and developers considered whether they even wanted to be part of an industry which engendered such vileness as GamerGate. Thankfully most of them have stayed the course, despite massive personal abuse.

I went to a sci-fi convention called Eastercon back in 2008. It was full of passionate, cool people. Neil Gaiman was there, and talked about how the people at Eastercon were his tribe. That’s what makes the treatment of Whedon so hard to stomach: where GamerGate was the actions of people entirely opposed to my world view, and thus it was easy to compartmentalise their behaviour, the anti-Whedons purport to share my general sensibilities, despite their behaviour. It recalls the weird and nasty treatment of Jonathan Ross a year ago by apparently well-intentioned hatemongers connected with the sci-fi Hugo Awards.

This is my tribe, turning on itself with claws out and teeth sharpened to points.

This will continue to escalate as the attitude of hate spreads from one unconnected cause to another, turning vibrant communities into wastelands and some social networks into no-go areas. It’ll drive people away from open networks, as they retreat to their walled Facebook friend gardens in an attempt to shut out the unfiltered world.

Connecting my dial-up modem to the internet was always exciting, as those glitchy dial tones hummed out. Now there’s trepidation when I turn my computer on or take a peek at my phone. The internet feels more dangerous and unpredictable than ever.

Ultron’s violence and actions eventually lead directly to the birth of the Vision, a truly benevolent creature that is hard to define but which represents compassion and a balance of emotional empathy and rationality. Ultron inadvertantly creates that which ultimately defeats him.

Perhaps Crash Override will prove to be the internet’s Vision. More likely it is that something else will stand on its shoulders, to support those targeted and help stem the tide of hate.

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What is most important is a culture change. A shift to an understanding that the internet is a real place and that threats are just as real online as when said face-to-face. Until there’s that global shift towards a more compassionate, empathetic outlook, we will have endless GamerGates, each time a new target and a new theme but always the same approach and attitude.

While we wait for that theoretical future, let’s try one step at a time. Which means preparing for July 29th – the recognised Don’t Be A Dick day, as initiated by Wil Wheaton. Let’s all not be dicks.

James Gunn has it right.

Also, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a pretty cool movie.

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