‘Hashtag! We’re It’: 2014, A Retrospective (Part 1)

Firstly, my apologies for the long delay in posting. Life intrudes. Sometimes life intrudes in truly horrible ways.

Secondly, I’m sorry for the length of what I am about to inflict upon you all. I swear, this began as a two paragraph review of a movie (my ‘movie of the year’, as if anyone cared) then grew out into an overview of the year’s cinema (because how else would I cram in more pissy comments about Michael Bay?), and finally morphed into a whole rant about the year itself. The good, the bad, and the Flappy Bird.

I’m not even going to pretend that it’s worth reading. It’s long, and convoluted, and needlessly tangential (just look at this intro; seriously, what is wrong with me?) But if you can be bothered: this first post will be about the depressing stuff, a selection of some of the grim social gloom that’s hung over the year. The next one promises to be more upbeat.

But before we get to the fun, let’s get to ripping off that bandaid…

hashtag

2014: The Bad Stuff (A Misleadingly Small Selection)

So it’s that time again, a time when, as inevitable as the turning of this old world, self-righteous blowhards like myself decide to arbitrarily look back upon the previous twelve months and make grand, sweeping, laughably unsubstantiated declarations about the year that was. …And since this coming year is 2015, it will inevitably contain some kind of lazy Back to the Future reference.

You may recall that last year, with my complete lack of any power, I declared it the ‘Year of the Selfie’ – which basically meant that I presented a bunch of tortured connections between film, games, literature and the news, and tried to argue that society was in a burgeoning state of self assessment.

I argued that texts like Tomb Raider, Man of Steel, and whatever the hell Baz Luhrman was trying to say with a 3D Great Gatsby film, were evidence that, as a culture, we were all trying to reassess ourselves and our personal moral codes amidst a miasma of new social media, the knowledge that the government was actively and aggressively violating our privacy for the sake of security, the dread of continued racial injustices like the shooting of Treyvon Martin, and the arrogance of Microsoft’s decision to make the Xbone its own private NSA Elf on a Shelf, sitting in your house monitoring you incessantly. Whether you wanted it to or not.

But this past year, if I were presumptuous enough to bother making some more lazy generalisations (I am), I would argue that instead of singular selves, crying out into the cyber stratosphere to assert our existence, this year appeared to be more about forming social communities from out of the void. Rather than individuality, in 2014 we sought out like-minded souls, taking comfort in the confirmation of others. Social media was embraced, and sometimes weaponised, as a means to reach others, to voice concerns, to offer support, to plead for more.

The hashtag suddenly became a kind of social adhesive, indicating one’s contribution to worldwide conversations, signalling the subscription to a cause or particular beliefs, or to keep ironically hashtagging ‘#FirstWorldProblems’ so that people hate you. Indeed, the hashtag was so ubiquitous that in June it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Sometimes this longing for community emerged in truly ugly circumstances, however, and perhaps the most regrettable example arose in the swirling Lovecraftian horror of Gamergate.

Colbert Report Gamergate

IMAGE: The Colbert Report (Comedy Central)

It’s a nightmare I’ve already addressed, but to summarise briefly: Gamergate was originally triggered by an hysterical, ex-boyfriend, Eron Gjoni who, in a spiteful act of vengeance, decided to try slut-shaming his ex-girlfriend, an independent games developer named Zoe Quinn, online. Gjoni published a rambling, slanderous rant in which he accused her (amongst most anything else he could) of sleeping with games journalists for good reviews – an accusation that has already proven untrue.

Gjoni’s private meltdown was soon fanned into a blaze by conspiracy theorists and angry misogynists like King of Pol (who has since had some troubling things to say both about the holocaust and his Gamergate brethren) and Sargod of Arkkad (who uses some highly suspect editing to bolster fatuous arguments, and who would very much like it if the women folk would quit complaining). But it really kicked into gear when it was shamelessly co-opted and exploited by cynical sociopaths like ‘journalist’ Milo Yiannopoulous, who dressed it up as the tip of an iceberg of corruption in the games media and assigned himself the status of messiah.

To digress for just a moment, Gamergate can probably be best understood by examining these two principle figureheads of the movement (if one sets aside Adam Baldwin, who appears to have gone insane). Because on closer inspection both Eron Gjoni and Milo Yiannopoulous prove to be paradoxical and problematically hypocritical figures.

Gjoni, although desperate to attract as much attention to himself as possible (eliciting sympathy to paint himself as a victim at the very moment he is using it as a weapon of revenge to destroy his ex-girlfriend’s life) is swift to erupt in rage as soon as it impacts him negatively in any way. Meanwhile, in his only interview he is unable to even explain the point of the maelstrom he knowingly stirred up. He ping pongs from regretting what he did to regretting absolutely nothing; being disgusted by the movement, to being immensely proud of it; wanting to apologise for numerous women harassed as a result of his false allegations, but not really because other people (anyone who’s not him apparently) need to be responsible for their actions… or something…

Yiannopoulous, on the other hand, was a guy who only a month previous to jumping on the Gamergate bandwagon, had dismissed anyone who played videogames as sad, lonely ‘weirdoes [in] yellowing underpants’ playing out fantasies of rape and murder, who ‘need therapy and their internet connections taken away by mum’. A year earlier he had declared the ‘teens and man-children addicted to these immersive video games’ who ‘support a multi-billion dollar video games industry’ to be ‘an awful lot of unemployed saddos living in their parents’ basements’.

And yet, having seen an opportunity to use this enraged mob as an army in his own hateful anti-feminist culture-war (a crusade that even a cursory glance back at his bibliography of vile screeds reveals he has been waging for years), he suddenly, miraculously, underwent a conversion. Overnight he embraced the videogame medium so devoutly that he was soon slandering Zoe Quinn as a mastermind of fraud and sleaze in an industry he now claimed to care deeply about – despite the fact that she was innocent of every charge he brought against her – and he felt justified belittling critic Anita Sarkessian’s right to express any views on the medium – despite the fact that she has been exploring games far longer than he has, and has never used anything like the denigrating language he repeatedly employed to sneer at the people who play them.

Indeed, Yiannopoulous’ bias and insincerity is so overt that often his work reads like broad farce. Within this article, a shambolic tirade of specious ‘facts’ and paranoid hyperbole, he literally describes Zoe Quinn as a soft core porn actress, a rapist and a murderer; calls Brianna Wu a lying, delusional, ‘dishevelled, psychologically unstable transsexual’; and accuses Anita Sarkeesian of being a ‘marketing scammer’ who knows little about games and who has exploited this situation for her own fame (remember, he’s talking about Sarkeesian here, not himself); all while imploring his fellow GamerGaters to not resort to ‘personal attacks’, and to only tell ‘basic truths’. The hypocrisy is so brazen it is breathtaking.

milo yiannopoulos kernel editor

IMAGE: Milo Yiannopoulous (Richard Saker/The Guardian)

Unsurprisingly, if you do bother looking up some ‘basic truths’ on Yiannopoulous they paint a rather unflattering picture, as he appears to be no stranger to corruption and exploiting people himself). To quote Yiannopoulous: ‘This is the pantheon of self-promoters, opportunists and oddballs who have made gamers’ lives a misery over these past few months.’ Presumably it was only by accident that he left himself off that list.

Anyhoo.

For a time, many people who weren’t prejudiced, self-serving lunatics also got caught up in Gamergate’s ‘ethics in games journalism’ rhetoric. This was because Gamergate was exploiting a genuine sense that there has been, and remain, issues of corruption in the games media that have gone unaddressed for years. Issues like: the influence of multimillion dollar publishers upon editorial policies; the seedy grey area of promotional consideration disguised as commentary; underhanded marketing practices like shipping unfinished products and preventing reviewers from warning customers away.

Unfortunately, it seems Gamergate never really was about combating such corruption – as has been shown by their lack of interest in any of the genuine instances of shady business practices in recent months (remember all the protests over Ubisoft embargoing reviews of Assassin’s Creed: Unity until after the game was already on sale? …yeah, didn’t think so). Meanwhile even further women in the industry continue to be targeted with threats and harassment (even though that supposedly was never the point…), and the leaders of Gamergate have descended into an internal death spiral of recrimination, intimidation and overt fraud. It turned out that ‘ethics in journalism’ really was just a catch cry used to deflect attention from the actual agenda of the movement, primarily the demonization and harassment of female programmers and critics, and anyone who could be slapped with the pejorative ‘Social Justice Warrior’ label.

And so, as the weeks have ticked by, support for the movement has steadily waned, with those who had employed the sister hashtag #NotYourShield – supporters who were often women and members of the LGBT community (the few who weren’t sock-puppet accounts of course) – coming to realise that they were ironically being used as a shield anyway, only this time for the zealots in Gamergate.

To many, myself included, Gamergate proved to be just an ugly, sorry con-job waste. For the miniscule positives that it achieved (scaring a couple of game websites into writing up a list of ethical practice guidelines), it was blithely destructive, self-serving, and responsible for actively misleading countless participants who believed they were agitating for a change to coercive advertising practices, not to serve the paranoid delusions of some fear mongering culture war. And it goes without saying (but is worth saying loudly anyway) that nothing can be said to justify the dehumanising abuse and threats of rape and murder that came to signify the movement.

But in a far kinder light than it ultimately deserves, what Gamergate proved is that people are willing to join together into likeminded communities if they feel that something they love is being threatened, or if they believe they can petition for change. It’s just as shame that those who may have really wanted to appeal for more ethical practice in games coverage were able to be exploited and shouted over by those pushing their own anti-feminist, anti-Social-Justice-Warrior, anti-criticism agenda.*

Elsewhere, hashtags were a means of reviving buried stories and compelling journalists to question the powerful.

Whatever the truth of the accusations, it is telling that after a decade of little to no attention being paid to claims that Bill Cosby had, over the course of his lengthy career, drugged and raped multiple women (it turns out in some cases this silence was directly engineered by Cosby himself), this was this year that the story finally exploded into the public’s consciousness. And social media, for better and worse, was directly responsible.

The match was lit by comedian Hannibal Buress on stage, with a routine that replied to Cosby’s history of condescendingly criticising younger black comedians with the line, ‘Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.’ There was more to Buress’ routine, and a clip of it soon went viral, with people willing to take up his invitation to Google the name ‘Bill Cosby’ and ‘rape’ and being shocked with what they found.

But bafflingly, at the exact worst moment in which this resurfaced news was circulating through Twitter, Cosby’s web media team decided to invite people to use a program on his site to turn him into a meme. The exact phrase was, ‘Go ahead, me meme!’ and to put it as mildly as it is possible to put anything, the results, shared across the globe as #CobyMeme, were surely not what they were expecting. The onslaught of references to pudding pops, hoagies and violent sexual assault were like a MadLib from hell, vomiting up a disturbingly representative manifestation of the colliding imagery any Cosby fan was now trying to process: America’s favourite dad perhaps being predatory serial rapist.

Cosby-Meme

IMAGE: #cosbymeme (one of the tame ones)

The whole continuing saga has exposed a number of troubling issues in society. Not the least of which is how much bias and ignorance women still face in society whenever rape is mentioned, and how, even after the story was forced back into the public consciousness, a campaign of scoffing and victim blaming soon followed.

Firstly, it’s perturbing that it took a male comedian to speak up in order for this decades-long saga to finally become an issue. Although multiple women have identified themselves as victims of Cosby over the years, the accusations had gone largely unremarked by the mass media – so much so, in fact, that Cosby’s biographer felt no qualms in completely omitting the civil court case of 2005, in which 13 women filed a class action sexual assault case against the comedian, from his exhaustive book.

Predictably, maniacs like Glenn Beck were swift to liken anyone in the media reporting on or questioning Cosby about such accusations as being rapists themselves, but even in more liberal circles, rape was revealed to be a problematical topic that many would rather just ignore. One could look at the tone-deaf, ugly message of Aaron Sorkin’s second-to-last episode of The Newsroom to see the way in which many, Sorkin apparently very much included, would prefer that victims of sexual assault keep quiet about the crime visited upon them rather than making everyone else uncomfortable about the thought that someone, somewhere, might get falsely accused.

And so, although social media became a place where people could openly voice their support for these women and lament at the frequently tin-eared coverage of some news outlets (including CNN reporter Don Lemon’s witless questioning of one alleged victim, in which he literally asked her why she didn’t just bite his penis off, responded to with #DomLemonReporting), it was also a place in which they were tarnished as gold diggers (despite the fact that most have not asked for any kind of money), hungry for fame (despite some of them already being famous and many actively trying to avoid the spotlight), or sexually promiscuous frauds. A disturbing recurring sentiment was that these women ‘knew what they were getting into’, despite the principle theme in each of their accounts being that they were drugged against their will after mistakenly believing they were with someone safe.

The flip side of this social media saturation is that now that the fantasy image of Bill Cosby has been eroded – the one inextricably entwined with loveable, learned, morally upstanding old Dr. Phil Huxtable – it has kicked open the doors on re-examining many other instances in which Cosby has behaved in mean-spirited, unsettling, coercive, or outright deceitful ways – all stories that have previously gone either unremarked, or seemingly kept hidden behind a wall of celebrity privilege.

A more thorough account of the numerous sexual assault allegations being brought against Cosby can be found here, and the full history of the story as it played out in social media can be found here, but whatever the truth of these accusations (although as the numbers of women sharing strikingly familiar horror stories keeps climbing and anecdotal evidence from Cosby’s former co-workers continues to mount, it doesn’t look good), the whole saga has been inextricably bound to social media.

Hashtags gave the story new life when the mainstream press had been willing to let it fade forgotten (a point emphatically expressed by reporter David Carr, who gave an account of his own impulse to ignore these details in the past, and his personal experience being chastised by Cosby); they have presented a window into the real-time damage that these details were wreaking on Cosby’s carefully cultivated wholesome image; and they have offered a venue for people to vent their spleen – whatever their perspective on the story – in a court of public opinion that is simultaneously empowering, therapeutic, and potentially ruinous.

Social media also became an essential space for people to voice their shock and concern over what appears to be continuing examples of entrenched racial injustices in the United States.

After the outrage sparked last year by the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighbourhood watchman who stalked and gunned down an unarmed seventeen year old African American schoolboy named Treyvon Martin, one would have hoped that such racially motivated deaths would be a thing of the past. Instead, they seemed to have multiplied, with the number of fatal incidents between armed white police officers and young black civilians reaching a despairing crescendo.

Michael Brown Protest

IMAGE: Protest for Michael Brown (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

With an alarming regularity, this last year saw numerous news reports of unarmed black men being killed by armed officers, with the further shock of few, if any, charges being brought against those officers who chose to employ lethal force. To list only a handful of the many such instances in recent history…

August of this year saw eighteen year old Michael Brown shot dead in Fergusson by Officer Darren Wilson. The details of the altercation that led to Wilson unloading his firearm are disputed – Wilson insists that Brown was lunging at him through the window of his car when he first fired, and that he only shot in self defence; witnesses describe Brown being several feet away in the street with his arms raised in submission – but in the end, Wilson had fired twelve shots at the unarmed Brown, leaving him dead. A grand jury decided not to indict. As a result of this verdict, and the appearance of deliberate prosecutorial mishandling of the case, protests broke out across the country, in some instances marching peacefully for change, in others breaking out in violent frustration and met with a militarised police response.

There was also the death of John Crawford in August, shot dead in Walmart for carrying an unloaded BB gun that he was presumably thinking of purchasing. Even though the footage later released shows Officer Sean Williams discharging his weapon literally only seconds after arriving on scene – while Crawford was still talking on his cell phone – Williams was likewise not indicted by a jury. (And just in case the story wasn’t already awful enough, Crawford’s girlfriend was then harassed by police throughout an hostile hour and a half interrogation, during which they refused to tell her he was dead, threatened her with imprisonment, accused her of being on drugs, and tried to get her to say that he brought the gun to the store himself).

In November, Tamir Rice, a twelve year old African American boy playing with a toy pellet gun, was shot to death by a police officer who, once again, had opened fire only two seconds after driving up to him. After the shooting, the boy’s distraught, fourteen year old sister was handcuffed and put into the back of a police car, and his mother was threatened with arrest as she tried to reach where her son lay bleeding to death. And just in case the whole story wasn’t horrible enough, despite the officer who killed Rice, Tim Loehmann, being found unfit for duty two years previous, having a history of ‘dismal’ handgun performance, being overly emotional, and saying that he joined the Cleveland Police looking for ‘more action’, the president of the Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association, Jeffrey Follmer, still felt the need to go on television and and tell everyone that the killing was ‘justified’. …Oh, and he also thought that a football player expressing his freedom of speech and wearing a t-shirt that asked for justice for Rice and Crawford was ‘pathetic’.

So he sounds like a great guy.

Back in April Dontre Hamilton, another young, unarmed black man was shot dead by Officer Christopher Manney . According to Manney, he and Hamilton got into a fist-fight after he confronted him, and despite being unarmed, was apparently so dangerous that Manney had to shoot him 14 times. Even given Manney’s non-proportional decision to take lethal action, the County District Attorney John Chisholm decided not to press charges.

But perhaps the most disturbing case for how gruesome this year was in the race relations of a supposedly enlightened western society, there was the death of Eric Garner in July. Garner was an unarmed black man who was choked to death by Officer Daniel Pantaleo while surrounded and outnumbered by several armed law enforcement officials.

Garner had just broken up a fight between two other men when he was stopped by two officers who began accusing him of selling illegal cigarettes – meanwhile letting the guys who had been fighting get away. Garner, offended by being accused of a crime immediately after preventing one, asked why he was being harassed, raised his hands, and asked not to be touched. Pantaleo responded by putting him in a headlock – a completely illegal form of restraint banned by police two decades ago – and then proceeded to choke him to the ground so violently that Garner died, literally pleading for help to anyone who would listen that he could not breathe.

And then here comes the really, really unsettling bit.

Because even though the entire thing was caught on videotape (by a local who had already captured footage of police brutality in that area just a week previous), even though Pantaleo had used an illegal, life threatening move on an unarmed man who had not been charged with anything yet and who was not even fighting back, even though the medical examiner had ruled it a homicide, and even though Pantaleo can clearly be seen administering the chokehold on Garner while several other officers assist, pushing his face into the cement footpath and kneeling on his head after he was down, a grand jury decided to not indict him.

He will face no charges.

Protester for Eric Garner

IMAGE: Protester at the ‘We Will Not Go Back March in Staten Island (Justin Lane/EPA)

As a consequence, Garner’s last words, ‘I can’t breathe’, have taken on a whole new meaning, becoming a catch-cry for those who believe that this kind of racial injustice is systemic in the US.

And it is easy, sadly, to see why. That sense of galling, unfathomable constriction, of being crushed by a system that seems engineered to value black lives less than white, where it appears that police are free to kill African American suspects on sight and be exonerated by the legal system after the fact, even in the face of extraordinarily damning evidence – that is a feeling that every African American living in the United States must have to wrestle with every day, and it would have to be choking.

It’s a dread that has been articulated by many this past year, and one hardly needs to search far to hear African American citizens admitting that they feel afraid for themselves and their loved ones in such a climate; but one of the most striking examples for me was Killer Mike of Run the Jewels, who, after the grand jury acquittal of the officer that killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, addressed a crowd before his performance with a stirring, heartbreaking account of how he now fears for the safety of his two sons in a world that doesn’t seem to value their lives as it does others.

It was a powerful, moving speech, that cut through the mainstream media’s usual white noise of sensationalism, where pundits were already busy describing Fergusson protestors as ‘racial arsonists’ or likening them to ISIS, or complaining that Obama was meant to have put an end to all ‘this’, whatever ‘this’ was at any given moment. Killer Mike instead spoke from the heart, as an individual who felt the pressure of that verdict as symbolic of what he had always feared (and which now seemed confirmed) for the future of his family. And not surprisingly, as that realisation washed over him, he sounded like he couldn’t breathe.

It was entirely fitting then that Killer Mike’s message should be disseminated by audience members recording it and sharing it through social media, because as this string of police shootings and brutality on unarmed black men has continued unabated, it has consistently been social media toward which people have turned to digest the horror unfolding in the news. Sharing videos and eyewitness accounts were often the only way in which to counter the narrative being presented by official channels; too frequently it was the only way in which such stories were heard at all.

Hashtags, once innocuous methods of organising fragments of conversation amidst the borderless sprawl of the internet suddenly became a means of showing solidarity and community in the face of the far more dehumanising forces of legal and moral apathy. They were a comfort; a protest; a reminder; a promise.

In a world that seems to be impregnably divided into distinct classes – fans and critics; men and women; celebrities and audiences; black and white; police and citizens – hashtags managed to forge bonds, share experiences, and remind us of the commonalities that unite us rather than the fears that drive us apart.

But it was in our pop culture entertainments that these bonds could be seen rendered in broad, colourful metaphor. So with 2015 looming, I’d like to travel down that road one last time in the next post…

What’s that, you say? The previous sentence just seemed like a really tortured way to cram the word ‘road’ into this cobbled together conclusion?

Well that’s because:

Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads…**

Back to the Future To Be Continued

* I want to get off the topic of Gamergate now, because it truly is a horrid subject upon which to dwell, but before I do I want to recommend an article, ‘A Ship Sailed Into Port: On Bias, Controversy and My Friends’ Games’ by Maddy Myers, to anyone and everyone. It’s fantastically well-written and insightful anyway, but the fact that it manages to speak to the hateful, devastating impact of Gamergate, both on the industry and the individuals within it, and to give a nuanced, passionate account of what it is like to be a critic and someone who has had to suffer this pathetic, pointless harassment, makes it extraordinary, and more than just a little heartbreaking.)

** Actually, yes we probably still do need roads. For all the cars and stuff.

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