Gamergate is going after SXSW panels: how ‘the downvote’ gives power to the mob


I have a love/hate relationship with down voting. No, that’s a lie, I have a hate/hate relationship with down voting. I find the idea of weighing the amount of ‘nays’ vs ‘yays’ as a voting mechanic in any sort of digital space to be somewhat pointless. As an interaction designer, it makes little sense to me. A positive vote of ‘yes’ to see what is most popular works just as well, if not better than, subtracting noes from yeses. The problem with the ‘no’ option on the internet is that it allows for the creation of voting brigades whose negative clicks drown out the voices of those they don’t want heard.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot today, in particular, as a member of one of the three SXSW panels against which Gamergate has formed a voting “brigade. The campaign is an ongoing one, designed to thwart “social justice warriors”—a Gamergate name created for people who are publicly and vocally anti-Gamergate— from giving talks, interacting with one another online, participating in contests, or even organizing social meet-ups. Regularly on Kotaku In Action, the Gamergate subreddit, there are campaigns to intimidate ‘SJWs’ and have them removed from conferences. Anti-harassment commentator Randi Harper has had her talks downvoted, as well as threats of people attending to heckle and abuse. Game critic Anita Saarkesian has received threats of violence to stop her speaking engagements. My own mother was swatted in an effort to thwart my research into the Gamergate ethnography.

SXSW, an annual conference about music, film and technology in Austin, has for years had a voting system to select its panels that consists of up votes and down votes, along with the opportunity to comment on the panel. The votes cannot be seen currently and while the audience voting accounts for only 30% of the ‘grade’ or weight towards SXSW selecting a panel, this voting mechanic still feels off. Online harassment, specifically campaign-based harassment, is changing the idea of how an audience’s voice is weighed; it’s forcing us to reconsider whether the most active and vocal truly represent the entire audience.

Are most Gamergate-ers going to SXSW? Probably not. But allowing for targeted downvotes against specific panels allows for a skewed and flawed voting system. In this particular example, if the voting system allowed for only upvotes/yes votes, out of the hundreds of panels listed, Gamergate would have to organize around and vote for panels they actually liked and would want to see, which is the whole point of voting for panels in SXSW.

I sent an email notifying SXSW. The organization said that it would take the skewed voting on the panels into heavy consideration during the selection process.

But this is bigger than SXSW. Facebook seemed to figure this out, only giving us a like button and not a dislike button (though that has its own issues). But the like is not as powerful as the up or down vote. Liking is a nudge, a useful hi or hello or “thinking of you”; liking is a positive and passive interaction that does not actually involve voting. Votes move content up and make it more visible, which then determines what the communication style and personality is of the social media network, board, or page where the voting occurs. If groups of users are determining via down votes what is acceptable content, such as in Reddit, it starts to determine how conversations are framed and even the linguistic tone of those conversations. It creates a bell jar, an endless feedback loop that does not necessarily reflect the entire community, just who is loudest in that community.

Rather than downvotes, we should have a “dislike” option, a way to register discontent without the power to make something disappear. A dislike is not a downvote, which is a mechanism designed to silence, it’s an emotional signal. This would level the playing field, doing away with the unfairness of brigading, and allowing for a ‘truer’ vote. A voter’s no shouldn’t be more powerful than another voter’s yes. Having ‘no’ exist in an online voting context nullifies the idea of voting, it allows for those with louder and larger voices to silence those without.

To counteract the Gamergate brigade, I’ve started my own positive brigade, asking Facebook friends who like the sound of the panels to share them far and wide. The other two panels are doing the same. Currently, friends but mostly strangers are posting on the panel pages talking about their merits. Let’s see if this posting voting brigade can outweigh the negative one.

Caroline Sinders is an interactive artist, researcher, interaction designer and game designer based in Brooklyn and, occasionally, New Orleans.