Digital Necro-Power. The Speed of the Online Hate Mob

As We Are, So Shall You Be
As We Are, So Shall You Be

“Fair warning, its best not to mock the board I run a lot. Things have happened in the past week”
Benjamin Biddix – founder of /Baphomet/

Foucault’s concept of biopower is something that first appears in print in the first volume of The History of Sexuality, “The Will to Knowledge.” It relates to the practice of modern nation states and the means by which subjects are “regulated.” Biopower is the (quite literal) embodying of the power nation state against the individual. The modern political state regulates and disciplines its subjects through “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations.” (The History of Sexuality Vol. I: The Will to Knowledge 1976)

As prescient and insightful as Foucault’s idea of the biopower of the state undoubtedly is, there are key ways that society has shifted which remain completely unforeseen in Foucault’s work. Western society has become infinitely more interconnected thanks to the explosion of digital technology, particularly the internet. There are two major unforeseen consequences of such a colossal shift; firstly, the nation state now no longer enforces the limits of where communities can be formed, and the disciplinary institutions of a powerful nation are no longer the major shaping force of normative behaviour. Through the web we form our own new communities, creating digital Diasporas of people around seemingly infinite fandoms, enthusiasms and hobbies. Breaching borders, the web has allowed for the creation of new cultural colonies – spaces open to all. In terms of a cultural civilization, the internet is the new frontier.

Rather than accept this rather utopian understanding of the web the idea of the disciplinary procedure that Foucault speaks of requires a re-examination. Anyone familiar with what it’s like to exist online can tell you that the idea of a disciplinary discourse still remains. The past six months has seen the increased visibility of a loosely affiliated movement, known as #Gamergate, group which ostensibly argues about the ethics of games journalism and the industry more generally, but in actuality is a coalition of neo-reactionaries, libertarian extremists, misogynists and entitled white males. The anonymity of the internet and the ease by which ideas and (mis)information can be proliferated through chan boards and sites like reddit have enabled #Gamergate to become something more than a collection of identifiable members. This isn’t a movement or authoritative discourse as traditional political theorists would understand it, rather it’s become a virulent movement of terror and harassment towards (mostly female) game developers and writers.

To fully comprehend the power and danger of groups such as #Gamergate we need to re-examine the inherited ideas around conflict. Historically speaking, in the West, conflict between powerful groups or nations depends upon the creation of the Jus publicum Europaeum, the European juridical order that determines the legal and sovereign rights of nations to declare, wage and conclude war. As Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe puts it, conflict between nations is a recognition of equality, as the nation state is the model of political unity, the ideal of the universal and a moral sign of rationality. Conflict is thus something legally codified, rationally waged and governed through a specific legal code, yet in the age of the digital globe the judicial order is increasingly antiquated.

The new cultural colonies of the internet are not organised into nation states and thus, their declarations of “war” are not governed by the same code. As victims of #Gamergate have discovered, criticism between roughly equal opposing forces is something that does not exist anymore. As Mbembe writes, ‘their wars are not wars between regular armies” – unfettered by the juridical code of conflict between equals #Gamergate places its targets into a permanent state of exception. People like Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu and Anita Sarkeesian are not respected as enemies, but labelled the “Literally Who,” utterly dehumanised, so action against them becomes free of the moral ramifications that actions against a perceived equal would carry. #Gamergate members reduce their opposition to nothing, in order to rationalise their virulent misogyny and harassment behind the excuse of concern for ethics.

As cultural colony, the internet has become “the location par excellence where the controls of order can be suspended…in the service of civilization.” (Mbembe)

When anonymity, a suspension of the legal and cultural codes of warfare and chan culture intersect the real dangers of discourses like Gamergate come into focus. With critics dehumanised, and the idea of defending the undeniable virtue of ethics as justification Gamergate come to claim the right of necro-power. Whereas Foucauldian biopower is the right to life, necro-power is the right to kill. This may sound hyperbolic, but in the age of the internet an online “death” can be hugely damaging to people just trying to make a living. What this means, in a digital world, is the trashing of reputation, the destruction of web sites, the annihilation of your online presence and your erasure from the shared space of the web. In the early days of Gamergate members openly discussed crashing people’s careers, destroying them, leaving them as pariahs – as people who would never work online again. As the group has developed so to have their tactics. The /Baphomet/ board on 8chan, loosely affiliated to #Gamergate, has become home to the latest strategy. Where once it was enough to erase you from the online world, now the mob seeks to drop the personal documents and information of “enemies” into the lap of a vast, anonymous group convinced of the need for your punishment. The process, known as doxxing, aims to uncover phone numbers, email addresses and personal information of their foes and anyone else. In the colony, there is no such thing as a non-combatant, and the more damage that can be done, for ethics, for “great justice” or even the lulz, the better.

“Doxxing” is only one of the ways in which #Gamergate has attempted to exercise their necro-power. From gaining personal information the group has moved on to “swatting” – phoning police with the address of their enemy and a false tip in the hopes of having armed police sent round to their address. #Gamergate is, in short, attempting to use the mechanisms of the internet to have people killed through the institutions of the state.

However, the state of exception is not just something reserved for critics and enemies. One only needs to look at 8chan (a major point of communication for GG members) and its continuing defence of child pornography and racism in the name of free speech to see this attitude in action. The vile material hosted on the site and defended by its users is an embodiment of the values of Enlightenment free speech – the violence of the state of exception at its most heinous, operating in the service to the values of civilization.

We cannot see the internet as a location inhabited by savage trolls – such a strategy would only serve to continue the power dynamics of colonialism, and the continuing denial of any commonality between those on the web and those in the “real” world. What’s necessary is a reworking of that juridical code that acknowledges the reality of the web and the connection we all share to it. In the meantime, the response to #Gamergate must be one of resistance – of refusal to allow the co-opting of ethics, and the continuation of community against those who would seek to treat anyone online as a savage to be erased from the digital diaspora.

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