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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Meet Zoe Quinn: troll slayer

After surviving horrific online abuse, Zoe Quinn hopes to help fellow victims via her new book,

Portrait of author, activist zoe quinn
Portrait of author, activist zoe quinn

Zoe Quinn has experienced so much online abuse that she literally wrote the book about it.

The video-game developer was one of the highest-profile victims of Gamergate, the scandal during which an internet hate mob led a campaign of appalling attacks against several women.

In Quinn’s case, it started in 2014, when her ex-boyfriend posted a 9,000-word essay about her when they broke up. The essay went viral and Quinn was inundated with threats of physical and sexual violence, and even death threats. She describes the online campaign against her as a “communal witch hunt” designed to take her life apart, run as if were a military campaign.

Three years on, the hate continues, but Quinn has refused to be cowed, even after being diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder because of the abuse.

Instead, Quinn, 29, has helped thousands of people through Crash Override, a non-profit organisation she founded to support to those who have been through a similar ordeal.

She has now written a book about online abuse that is disturbing, inspiring and insightful, highlighting a problem encountered by 73 per cent of internet users, according to American think tank the Pew Research Centre.

Crash Override: how gamergate (nearly) destroyed my life. Published by PublicAffairs
Crash Override: how gamergate (nearly) destroyed my life. Published by PublicAffairs

Quinn says that she felt she had a “duty” to write Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life. And How We Can Win The Fight Against Online Hate.

The book, which has been optioned by movie producer Amy Pascal with Scarlett Johansson in line to take the lead role, was “like doing my own autopsy”, but a necessary step, she says.

Quinn believes that stopping online trolling is an “education issue”. Everyone should understand how the internet has a growing impact on all aspects of our lives, she says.

She also has short shrift for Google, Facebook and Twitter, and says that actually enforcing their terms of service would be a good start in the fight back.

As she puts it: ‘Did you intend to build a platform for Nazis to attack people?

Quinn also sees a direct link between message boards such as 4chan, the alt-right movement and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in the United States.

She was shocked when Gamergaters begin adopting Trump as their candidate because they saw him as one of them, a troll taking their “art” to the next level.

In another parallel, one of her most vocal critics was Milo Yiannopoulos, then a blogger with alt-right website Breitbart, who picked up on GamerGate and wrote about “feminist bullies”.

“A lot of it capitalised on the same emotions,” Quinn says. “It’s all coming from this place of lingering fear and distrust and hatred of people who are different to you. It is doing so in a way that’s very short-sighted.

“People might not deep down believe in it, but they’re lashing out and angry, and want to burn things down because they feel wrong for whatever reason.”

Quinn grew up in rural upstate New York. When she was 12, her father, who repaired motorcycles for a living, bought her a 3DO, a short-lived 1990s console that gave her a first taste of gaming.

Quinn suffered from depression from a young age, and after becoming a game developer, she had her first hit in February 2014 with Depression Quest, an adventure game about the condition.

But life as she knew it ended after a break-up with her Eron Gjoni, a computer engineer. The two had an intense relationship lasting a few months in 2014.

His post, which she calls “The Manifesto”, alleged that Quinn earned favourable gaming reviews with sexual favours; it went viral on dark corners of the web on messaging boards such as 4chan.

Almost immediately, Quinn’s Wikipedia page was doctored to say she was dead, hackers broke into her Twitter and Tumblr accounts and other social media and posted lies about her.

One particularly detailed post read: “Next time she shows up at a conference we give her a crippling injury that’s never going to fully heal ... a good solid injury to the knees.

“I’d say a brain damage, but we don’t want to make it so she ends up too retarded to fear us.”

Quinn’s entire family were “doxxed”, meaning all their personal details and home addresses were posted online, and gradually anyone she had ever known was harassed.

If Quinn did not do or write anything online for a few days, the trolls bragged that she had killed herself and that they “maybe we finally won”.

In conversation on the phone, Quinn, who now lives on the West Coast of the US, speaks with a confidence and openness that belies the personal cost of her ordeal. Recalling those first few days, she says that it was “long haze of watching everything crash down around me”.

Had it not been for the support of a close personal friend, she is convinced she would have killed herself.

Quinn says that in the darkest days, she thought her abusers were right.

“I was thinking it’s true there’s no way I have any talent, maybe they have a point, maybe I’m just some hack that people feel sorry for,” she says. “I thought everyone in my life was going to abandon me and would automatically believe all this.

“I thought all of my friends are pretending to like me and just feel sorry for me. I thought it was over.

“I’ve alternated between just sheer completeness numbness and fog.”

After experiencing flashbacks, which she describes as “a panic attack on steroids”, Quinn began seeing a therapist and was diagnosed with PTSD, a condition more commonly associated with soldiers returning from battle.

In September 2014, she tried to get an injunction through a court in Boston, where Gjoni was living, but the justice system was not geared up to deal with online abuse. As Quinn writes in the book, a judge told her: “If this is the way the internet is, you really should get offline.”

Instead, Quinn started Crash Override, which has since helped thousands of others who have been through the same ordeal.

The author and activist has also spoken at the United Nations – she jokes in the book that “my break-up required the intervention of the United Nations” – and has appeared on dozens of advisory panels about online abuse.

The final piece in her mission is her new book, which she hopes will be a manual for anyone experiencing the kind of intense trolling that she did.

Her insight is among the best writing on surviving internet trolls; as Quinn sees it, online hate is a behaviour rather than a personality trait.

She has spoken to many “reformed” trolls, and she says they often have troubled pasts and lack a support structure around them. Another common thread is that people feel they have very little power over their lives and that doing this to somebody else gives them a feeling of control – until they realise there are real, human consequences.

Quinn says: “I used to answer the calls I got for a bit from anybody that wasn’t immediately screaming.

“They would say: ‘Is this Zoe Quinn? Your phone number is on the internet. I said: ‘Yeah, I’m aware of that.’

“Then they’d usually apologise. Now they heard my voice they would say: ‘Oh, this is a person.’

“I get apologies from Gamergaters pretty regularly saying: ‘I didn’t think you were a real person.’

“It sounds ridiculous to think about it, but it’s easy to see somebody as a dehumanised mass of pixels on a screen or an abstract concept or an in-joke to share with your buddies. I think it’s very easy to fall into this. You can do [awful things] to abstract concepts that you would never do to human being.”

As for what to do if you are confronted by a troll, Quinn has a rather surprising take: you should take pity on them. She says the biggest mistake that people make is thinking that being right matters to trolls. It doesn’t.

She says: “It never enters into the equation. There’s nothing you can say or do to convince them.

They want you to hate them, but if you pity them, it’s the worst thing you can do to somebody who wants you to be mad at them.

“A lot of the time, they are just pathetic.”

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Read more:

Twitter trolls and our depressing age of unenlightenment