"They say it's about ethics in games journalism, and to the teenage gamers lured into the movement, it may be," Shelley addressed the room. "But in reality, this is a new kind of information warfare attack. We can see them prototyping new methods, testing them, and iterating based on what they learn."
The boardroom around her listened intently. She had been alarmed by the presence of the movement on formerly-civil social networking platforms, but the executives she was addressing hadn't taken it seriously. It needed to be addressed with bold steps; so far, they had done exactly nothing.
The name "GamerGate" had been coined by the actor and conservative shit-poster Adam Baldwin. It was hard not to dismiss it, at first; the topic was an asinine, and obviously-fabricated, complaint about a female games journalist from her spurned ex-boyfriend. It smacked of male entitlement and high-school-level interpersonal politics. But it had quickly gained weight through reshares and viral memes, and turned into a genuine online movement that was about undermining attempts to build true gender equality in the games industry.
It was, in many ways, a complaint about feminism, which had a lot in common with complaints about feminism from conservative quarters in the past. But the tools were new: feminists online suddenly found themselves barraged by thousands of abusive social media posts, many of which contained threats of harm. Many were "doxxed": their personal details were released online, in itself as a threat. And some found themselves "swatted": armed police called to their homes and workplaces due to deliberately-placed fraudulent calls, their lives put in danger by some anonymous kid who could keep their hands clean.
It was a cesspool of rage and idiocy, whose participants were largely young men who felt out of control of their lives, who felt they were vilified by feminists and the things they cared about taken away from them. Rather than evolve and change, they lashed out with anger. And if you squinted a bit, you could even believe it was a grassroots movement.
Until you analyzed the data and looked at the patterns. Whether its origins were grassroots or not, it quickly fell under some kind of centralized control. There were secret chatrooms where individual campaigns of abuse were coordinated. And the messages were continually iterated upon, in increasingly sophisticated ways, to draw in more and more lost boys.
"Make no mistake," Shelley said, "this is a precursor to something else. If we look at the patterns of conversation online, we know that it's already having a negative effect on our user retention, and the experience of users when they do spend time on our site. But that's now. If it continues to grow, the effects may be catastrophic for our company. And as our users predominantly get their news and information from our site rather than directly from news sources, this could genuinely have a follow-on impact at the societal level."
The CEO looked at her, obviously unimpressed. "And you think whoever is behind this is actually planning to have that effect."
"Absolutely," Shelley said. "It's certainly not about ethics in games journalism. It could just be about hate, if we're lucky. But I think it could be about influencing political discourse in the United States and beyond."
"But you see how absurd that sounds," the CEO said. "It's a conspiracy theory. It's literally some boys and neckbeard men in their basements, talking about how they're upset that computer games aren't allowed to put women in bikinis anymore. These are people who are sad they can't get laid. They're not political operatives. They're losers. But you're painting them as some kind of information terrorists."
Shelley laughed, and immediately regretted it; the CEO was serious. He stared at her. "Okay. Look. Absolutely they're losers. Neckbeards, whatever you want to call them. Some of them call themself incels: involuntarily celibate. These are not winners in life, both because of their own choices, and because of the circumstances in which they happen to live. I don't think they're some kind of super-sophisticated information terrorist. In fact, I don't think they're that at all."
"So what, exactly, are you saying?"
"I'm saying they're ammunition. They're raw material. I'm saying that these are people who are looking for a scapegoat to blame their problems on, and a community of people who are ready to accept them. That's a really dangerous situation. It has all kinds of unpleasant historical parallels."
"So now you're comparing them to the Nazis," the CEO said.
"I am. Well, kind of. The Nazi Party pioneered the use of this kind of propaganda in Germany in the 30s and 40s. Those techniques turned into the modern public relations industry - seriously. Edward Bernays, who people think of as being sort of the father of modern public relations, developed these techniques based on Freud and a bunch of other psychological research. He very much knew that he was taking propaganda techniques and rebranding them. And one of his admirers was Goebbels, who took them and used them to great effect to build popular opinion against the Jews in Europe and bolster one of the most murderous regimes in modern history. The same techniques that led to the Final Solution were used to sell soap in the 1950s, pop music in the 1960s, and so on.
"But social media gave them superpowers. Our company, and companies like it, gave advertisers the ability to profile individual consumers and tailor messages so individually that it made them much more likely to buy a product or buy into an awareness campaign. Overture and Google AdWords let people display ads next to search engine results, so that the ad could be relevant to what people were already looking for. But social networks created a world where we all voluntarily share as much personal information as we can, and advertisers can pay to have their message injected into our social streams: the places where we get most of our news and information about the world from. And mostly, that's used to sell sugar water, and cars, and Software as a Service businesses. But it can be used to sell something else."
"I mean, that's our entire business," the CEO said, "but I don't really appreciate you tying what we're doing to Goebbels. I'm Jewish. My family is Jewish. My grandparents fled the Nazis. I find the idea that we're fueling some new hate movement incredibly offensive. For Christ's sake, our mission is to bring the world together. We're connecting people who would never otherwise be connected. That's a force for good; a force for peace."
Shelley nodded. "I agree with that. And I'm truly sorry to have offended you. I'm not trying to say that this is deliberate. But I'm also not going to sugar-coat it: this is happening."
She clicked a button on her laptop, and a slide behind her showed a map of Florida, and some statistical information.
"In 2010, there was a state-wide ballot initiative, Amendment 8, which would change the state constitution to allow larger class sizes in public schools. Conservatives loved it, because it made schools more financially efficient, and liberals didn't love it so much, because it had an adverse affect on the quality of teaching. It needed 60% of the vote to pass, and it was touch and go whether it would or not.
"Both sides spent about half a million dollars. The pro ballot initiative side spent it on traditional methods: robocalls, television ads, and so on. But the anti ballot initiative side decided to hire a digital ad agency and used the money on two counties: Dade and Broward. They ran 7.5 million Facebook ads, and were able to use the real-time reporting in order to hone their messaging and target voters.
"The initiative was soundly defeated. So they studied what happened after the fact, to figure out which messages had been the most effective. And the thing they discovered was that the targeted ads had swung not just liberal-leaning voters into voting against the initiative, but Republicans, as well. Their work had been more effective than they'd thought, and rather than just getting out the vote, they had swung opinion among people who were predisposed to being in favor of the amendment. They'd changed their minds. The single biggest factor in whether someone had swung their vote or not on this ballot initiative in this election was whether or not they regularly used Facebook.
"That was on a local scale. Cut to four years later, and nobody's used this for a Presidential election yet, but they could. They could even use these techniques to swing public opinion about a major issue on a more global scale - imagine if someone wanted to change perceptions of climate change."
"Or of a racial or religious group," the CEO added. "Our incentive is to make our service as vast as possible as quickly as possible. That's the venture capital model: to grow as quickly as possible in order to become as valuable as possible. In doing that, we've created networks of billions of people where a message can 'go viral' and be seen by hundreds of millions of people inside a couple of hours."
"In the right hands, it's an amazingly effective tool for organizing, for advertising, for building a community," Shelley said.
"And in the wrong hands, it's a weapon," the CEO said.
"That's what I'm trying to warn you about," Shelley said. "And there are thousands of women and people of color warning us about this movement right now. They're already experiencing hate from people who are using our service to build momentum. And unfortunately, these are experts in hate: people who have been the recipients of prejudice and bigotry for their entire lives. They know it's not limited to gaming. They can see this for what it is. GamerGate isn't about ethics in games journalism. It's about training maneuvers for something much bigger. It's about building a network, and the tools, and the techniques to sell hate on a grand scale."
"Okay, you've sold me on the potential," the CEO said. "The question is, how certain can we be? What if we take steps to stop it at this stage, and it really is just a bunch of neckbeards in their basements who are sore about their lives?"
"I mean, they're still abusing people," Shelley said. "They're spouting hate and using sock-puppet accounts and bots to create a firehose of invective that they can point at anyone they think deserves it. We should take action anyway. Really, we should. But I think we need to have our eyes open about the potential implications."
"I just don't see the argument that a social network can bring about fascism. We're a place where people share links and photos of cats. It's not at all integral to society. It's a toy."
"Our users pick up and use our service 14 times a day on average. On average. That means there are hundreds of millions of people who use it far more. And of the people who use our service on a regular basis, two thirds of them use it as the place where they get their news. It stopped being a toy a long time ago, and we need to start taking responsibility for what we're building."
"On the other hand," the CEO said, "you can look at this as engagement. There's a powerful anti-GamerGate voice out there. It's not one-sided. A debate is happening. And everyone on both sides of the debate is using our site to have it; they're logging in, they're spending more time, they're looking at our ads and they're making us profitable. If that opposition voice is strong and out there - and it is; I've seen it - then surely we should be happy that it's happening in our space? We're truly providing a space for people to talk and share? They're learning from each other, which is true to our mission. And if we censor these voices - and let's be clear, I don't like anything these GamerGate people stand for - we're not holding up our promise to be forces for freedom of speech.
"Here's what I think. We watch it, we take down anyone who is inciting violence or swatting people, but that's the most we can do."
Shelley stood and looked at him, unable to find the words.
"This is what we're here for," he said. "We're a place to share and discover. That doesn't mean we have to like everything the people who use our service say. People are finding our space useful, and they're using it to debate. I don't think that's going to be the downfall of democracy; I think it is democracy."
He paused, and looked at her, eye to eye. "A social network is not going to be the downfall of society, Shelley. We're just a website."