SAN FRANCISCO – Zoe Quinn knows a thing or two about defending against online harassment. As the first target of an online harassment campaign that would go on to become known as “GamerGate,” she has spent the past seven months handling continued abuse. Now, she’s helping other people protect themselves.
“We’re dealing with Voldemort here, so we might as well learn some defense against the dark arts,” she told an audience at a panel held during the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.
Quinn, along with her partner Alex Lifschitz, has formed a group called the Crash Override Network to help people who are victims of harassment deal with the abuse they face. To date, the group has helped in 300 cases, ranging from people who feared that they would be targeted by a mob to those people who have been dealing with harassment campaigns that lasted longer than a decade.
Over the course of that work, she has figured out some of the consistent mechanisms of online harassment, and wanted to give the packed audience of gaming industry professionals the tools to combat them.
“First and foremost, I would like everybody in this room to go home tonight, if you haven’t ever done this before, and just Google the ever-loving crap out of yourself,” Quinn said. “You know where you live, you know your addresses, you know all your sensitive information. Find out where that is, because a lot of people don’t realize how much information has either leaked or has been put out there unknowingly online about them.”
She went on to suggest a wide variety of other techniques, including setting up two-step authentication on all the accounts that allow it, using strong passwords, and searching information broker websites like Spokeo to remove personal details from the prying eyes of potential attackers.
In particularly extreme cases where people are concerned about “swatting” — the practice of an attacker calling in a fake threat to a local police department to try and draw a large (and potentially deadly) response — Quinn said that it’s best to talk with law enforcement ahead of time. While they’ll still have to come out to investigate the sort of threats that are usually par for the course in a swatting attempt like a purported hostage situation, informing them that a call may be coming could help keep the situation from getting out of hand.
What about people who are stuck being bystanders while their friends face abuse at the hands of an online mob? Quinn said she found it particularly helpful to have someone else (in her case, her partner) documenting the threats and harassment she received so she didn’t have to absorb chat conversations where people were planning how to drive her to suicide. Each screenshot that she saved of a harassing message included a date and URL where the message was found so it could be better used as evidence.
She also suggested that people encourage anyone they know who’s a target to take care of themselves. In her case, she didn’t eat or sleep for the first week of the harassment campaign against her, and it took a toll. Friends can also provide targets a distraction from paying attention to all the harassment directed their way.
No matter what they do, Quinn said it’s important for people who are friends of harassment targets to make sure they don’t do anything – even with the best of intentions – without the knowledge and say-so of their targeted friend. Online harassment can leave people feeling like they don’t have control, so it’s important to respect their wishes, especially because every case of harassment is different.
Above all else, she wanted to stress that harassment online is a real and very serious problem that people need to act on.
“It’s not ‘just the internet,’ Quinn said. “The internet is our workplace, where we build communities, where so (many) of us meet each other, and it’s time that have our Soylent Green moment and realize that ‘oh my god, the internet is people.’ It’s not some magical alternate universe where things don’t matter.”
That’s why she called on tech companies to do something to combat harassment that takes place on their platforms and that targets their employees. She said that restricting harassment wasn’t impinging upon free speech.
“It’s pretty simple: harassment is not free speech,” Quinn said. “Tolerating abusive behavior actually limits other people’s ability to speak out of fear, out of being terrorized.”
To that end, Crash Override has partnered with the newly-formed Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, which was founded by San Francisco developer Randi Harper to help companies develop technical and structural solutions to harassment. While Crash Override provides one-on-one support to harassment victims, OAPI exists to push for changes that make the internet a safer place long-term.