New Data Can Explain the Gamergate Nightmare on Twitter

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If, like me, you’ve discussed Gamergate on Twitter, you’ve probably uttered those five famous words from Arrested Development at least a few times: “I’ve made a huge mistake.” Talking about this particular subject in that particular venue is, in fact, a terrible life decision. But why? Why the insane level of sea-lioning and fake umbrage and asinine arguments? Some of it, of course, can be traced to weaknesses in the platform itself — weaknesses that promote the loud and the annoying, that drown out anything like a nuanced discussion.

But there’s more going on here, shows Andy Baio in a fascinating post on Medium (“I’ve been using Twitter for eight years, but I’ve never seen behavior quite like this,” he notes). Baio took three days’ worth of Gamergate data from the site — 316,669 tweets in all (gulp) — and scraped from them all sorts of interesting information pertaining to hashtags both supporting and opposed to the cause.

The whole thing is very much worth a read, but I think there’s one part that best explains why gamergaters on Twitter are so difficult to deal with (on Reddit, to be fair, I have found many of them to be a lot less awful). To try to understand the cacophony, Baio looked at the relative ages of pro- and anti-GG accounts. “Roughly 25% of all Gamergate activity is coming from accounts created in the last two months,” he writes — that is, since the controversy broke out. The median GG opponent had been on Twitter for more than four years, while the median supporter has been on for about a year. [Ed. note: when I first published this post, I had this sentence backwards, stating supporters had been on Twitter longer — as indicated in the rest of the post, they have not.]

All of this points to what a political scientist might call an “intensity gap.” A relatively small group can have a big impact simply because they are extremely engaged on the subject in question, or at least a lot more engaged than the opposition (“Nipplegate” launched a great number of FCC complaints back in 2004, but the the number of people who didn’t care and weren’t offended was likely a lot higher — they just remained silent because, again, they didn’t care). A fair number of people joined Twitter just to support GG.

They have every right to do so, of course — as Baio suggests, they probably discerned that this is where the most feverish debate (or “debate”) is going on. But the sort of person who would start a Twitter account just to publicize one cause is exactly the sort of person you’d expect to be loud and disruptive and online a lot. And, in fact, when you check their feeds, you often see 20 followers and nothing but Gamergate tweets since they launched their accounts in, say, October of 2014. They are there specifically to jump on any mention of a cause they feel very strongly about.

And that’s why my Twitter mentions page has been a pockmarked hellscape for the last week-plus.