Gaming the Dynamics of Online Harassment

  • Kevin Veale
  • January 2020, Springer Science + Business Media
  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-60410-3

How Online Harassment Works Like Alternate Reality Games, and Why That Could Help Us Stop Them

What is it about?

The book argues that online communities focused on harassment and abuse function as Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) where the collective goal is to ruin the lives of those they target. Comparing the structure and community dynamics of online hate-mobs to ARGs highlights ways to limit their impact in future, partly through tools that would offer users ways to shape their own safe engagement with online spaces. Additionally, the comparison also underlines how complicit social networks are in the dynamics of harassment deployed through their services, since most harassment techniques depend on the affordances offered by online social networks in order to function. Social networks need to shape their affordances to minimise harassment within their networked publics, or acknowledge that they are profiting through promoting abuse. The introductory chapter explores the long history of abuse online, together with the cultural dynamics which fuel it. The goal is to provide context, given that the modern environment of online harassment represents a refinement in how abuse is delivered rather than increase in its volume. Chapter 2 explores how danah boyd’s concept of the ‘networked public’ is vital for understanding both online communication and online abuse by illustrating ways that the designs of online spaces and social media can be turned to abuse. Chapters 3 and 4 argue that online harassment campaigns function as autonomous Alternate Reality Games, and share the same structure, community dynamics, subcultural capital, and collective intelligence. This overlap provides insights for ways to combat online harassment by treating them as ARGs. Chapter 5 explores tools frequently suggested for solving online harassment which don't work, or actually just make the situation worse. It also argues that one of the central elephants in the room regarding online harassment is the fact that social media companies and online platforms profit from it directly, which makes them very unmotivated to try and stop it. Chapter 6 offers ways to actually help make online harassment harder based on treating them as ARGs, and by giving people as much control over their engagement with online spaces as possible. It considers two case studies, Pillowfort.Social and Ahwaa. The concluding chapter reflects upon the Christchurch Call to Action Summit in May of 2019 as a response to the white supremacist terrorist attacks in New Zealand, where governments and technology companies discussed solutions to the ways that the internet and social media have been used to coordinate, inspire and organize offline terrorist attacks.

Why is it important?

Online harassment is everywhere and has serious impacts on peoples' lives. We've seen recent rapid escalations in how organized the delivery of online harassment can be, particularly connected to white-supremacist groups, anti-trans bigots, and major political campaigns. People are learning from these campaigns and applying their techniques to achieving political ends, and meanwhile social media platforms and online companies profit from misery while claiming that nothing can be done to change the status quo. The point of the book is to provide historical context for online harassment, show how the community dynamics of hatemobs and online harassment campaigns work, and to show that we don't just have to tolerate the way things are because there ARE things that can be done to make things better. However, online companies will provide a significant hurdle to that change, which we can also try to ciircumvent.


Dr Kevin Veale
Massey University

This is a very personal experience for me, and one I've grown up beside. Normally, I write about storytelling, and the ways that storytelling can be influenced by the forms of media it's communicated through - meaning you can use those media forms as storytelling tools in themselves. I've done work on the past on how ARG communities work... which meant that when organized online harassment campaigns really started kicking off in the 2010s and started targeting my friends and people I knew, I could see that they were functionally ARGs focused on ruining peoples' lives. Since then, online harassment has harmed uncountable numbers of people, driving them out of industries, forcing them to move homes or countries, or in some cases driving people to suicide. Friends of mine have lost their lives because of online harassment that sought to kill them. This book is about documenting all of that, and what can be done to change it. And one of the things I found is that change is absolutely possible, but it runs into a wall where the companies through which this harassment happens aren't unaware of it - they are, and it makes them money. The end of the book explores ways to change things even despite that fact.

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