Oct 20, 2022 - Technology

How the far right borrowed its online moves from gamers

Illustration of a glitchy MAGA hat.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The key template that the far right and former President Trump's MAGA movement have used to organize online came not from the world of politics but from gaming, a leading misinformation researcher argues in a new book.

Catch up quick: Gamergate, in 2014, pitted some male gamers against the leaders of a movement to make video games more inclusive of women. As part of the conflict, online mobs deployed techniques and tactics that were later taken up by the Trumpist right, including the use of memes, false allegations and coordinated harassment.

Driving the news: Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, traces these connections in a new book, "Meme Wars," co-written with Emily Dreyfuss and Brian Friedberg.

Why it matters: The far right learned from Gamergate and other online movements how to use social media attacks to achieve real-world political gains in ways that many key institutions — from journalism to government to tech — are still struggling to understand.

In particular, Donovan notes that Steve Bannon saw firsthand the power of Gamergate while running Breitbart News.

  • Bannon took notes from the gaming controversy as well as from movements on the left, like Occupy, to develop strategies to apply in mainstream politics in Trump's 2016 campaign and from the White House.
  • That expanded the use of online attack methods on a wider range of issues and, more recently, made them a significant part of mainstream right-wing politics.

As one recent example, Donovan points to the entirely false but oft-repeated notion that some schools and workplaces allow people to identify as cats and use litter boxes.

  • The absurd falsehood has been used by dozens of Republican candidates and elected officials to further a broader attack on transgender people.

Be smart: By understanding the tactics and impact of Gamergate, Donovan says individuals and institutions can better evaluate possible responses to the current "meme wars" that include a wide range of racist, sexist and homophobic tropes .

  • Donovan identifies memes — visual references that reduce complex issues to a cartoonish, often childish shorthand that's endlessly repeated in online forums — as a particularly effective means of spreading misinformation.
  • Memes send a powerful signal to those who are clued into a particular controversy but are often missed or ignored by the masses, as was the case throughout Gamergate.

Trump himself is something of a meme, Donovan told Axios in a recent interview.

  • He's a TV tycoon recycling lines like "lock her up" and "build the wall" that echoed slogans from earlier far right movements, signaling to potential followers that he was on their side.
  • "People could very quickly get behind them and feel as if they were being seen," Donovan said.

Between the lines: In some cases those posting the memes are themselves seeking to inspire others to violence, but even when that's not the direct intent, real-world violence can follow.

  • Donovan notes that the man who killed 49 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019 cited online videos by YouTube creator and gaming personality Pewdiepie as inspirations. "I often make the argument these things are inconsequential until they are not," Donovan said.

State of play: Gamergate had severe consequences for individuals who were directly targeted in the course of its fights, but its impact wasn't immediately felt in the broader political landscape.

The bottom line: "Social media becomes this amplifier of harassment," Donovan said. "Instead of a few people on your back who don't like what you are doing, you have tens of thousands of people."

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to say that the Christchurch shootings happened in two mosques, not two churches.

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