Donald Trump is a bully. During his campaign, the US presidential candidate attacked women, the disabled, Mexicans, and immigrants of all stripes. But it’s not the first time the internet has seen these actions. Since 2014, online harassers from the so-called “alt-right” group known as Gamergate have been following the same road map. They and those who stood by them and did nothing gave us Donald Trump. But together, we can stop them.
Gamergate is a loose collection of disaffected (mostly) men who have used the issue of ethics in gaming journalism as a pretext to harass and attack women and many minority groups. The movement got its start in 2014 when a young man wanted to exact revenge on his ex-girlfriend. What started as a simple blog post became a campaign of harassment spearheaded by anonymous users on platforms like Reddit and 4chan. Gamergate has since used Twitter and other social-media platforms to lob misogynistic, homophobic, and anti-Semitic attacks on its critics.
The Gamergate playbook is simple and direct. First, identify a vulnerable target—usually a woman, person of color, or a member of the LGBTQ community—and then highlight their vulnerabilities so that disaffected, mostly white young men can attack them. Continue the attacks until someone pushes back, or the platform of choice shuts it down.
Unfortunately, few stood up to Gamergate, especially in the beginning. The gaming community stayed silent, worried about alienating its core base of young, male consumers. Twitter also took its time creating an online safety protocol; to this day it still struggles to leverage its power to shut down harassers when they violate the platform’s rules.
In response to criticism, Gamergate deflected. Gamergate harassers blamed their victims, saying their targets were at fault, sensitive, weak, and unable to stand even the softest criticism. Most insidiously, Gamergaters claimed that they were the real victims: They were simply protecting themselves from censorship, political correctness, and elite culture warriors who didn’t “get” their community.
Throughout his campaign, Trump has identified marginalized targets, all of whom are “others” relative Trump’s core of disaffected white male voters. He then lead by example, publicly taunting and criticizing his targets.
As with Gamergate, few stood up to Trump until it was too late. The Republicans he bested during the primary failed to call out his racism and misogyny, worrying about upsetting his supporters. The media copied and pasted his tweets as headlines and failed to identify his lies. By the time Hillary Clinton went on the attack in the months preceding the November election, the damage had already been done.
And Trump deflects, too. He calls the media “fake” when it criticizes him. He calls Democrats “sore losers,” claims he was the victim of massive voter fraud, and lashes out at “liberal elites” for ganging up on him.
Gamergate and Trump both succeeded by playing to insecurities and anxieties while simultaneously offering up soft targets onto whom they could vent their frustrations. Once drawn in, alt-right internet echo chambers and hyper-partisan news outlets like Breitbart exposed these men to consistent diets of fake or sensationalized news and conspiracies. The fact that Steve Bannon, the white nationalist and Breitbart founder, is now Trump’s chief adviser means this pattern will almost certainly continue.
The first step toward stopping Trump and his alt-right supporters online is to stand up to them. Instead of allowing online harassers to identify targets and scapegoats, internet companies have a responsibility to eradicate neo-Nazis, racists, and misogynists from their platforms.
And the law must take online hate and harassment more seriously, too. Massachusetts Congresswoman Katherine Clark has proposed a series of bills, including one to help train law enforcement to help victims of cyberharassment, that collectively establish real consequences for online harassment. This is a good first step, and should be replicated elsewhere.
Meanwhile, media outlets and political opposition must resist, call out, and push back against the normalization of hate. Teen Vogue, under the leadership of Elaine Welteroth, is pursuing a dynamic journalistic agenda on issues important to young women and calling Trump and his team on their lies. Politically, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker recently broke with tradition and testified against his Senate colleague Jeff Sessions’ nomination for Attorney General; he believed that Sessions’ racist past and lack of “courageous empathy” made him an unacceptable guardian of the civil rights of marginalized groups. And we must make that known.
Lastly, American voters have a responsibility to help stop Trump as well. There is no silver bullet for solving the alt-right problem. But bullies succeed in seas of bystanders. It’s time to stand up and be heard, online and in Washington.