Women’s lives? Just a joke to trolls

Ask yourself: if you could not tell what was real from what was fake, would that be a pleasant sensation?

You could be forgiven for thinking it was just dandy, given the reaction of some to the news that Jace Connors, the man who made violent, rambling YouTube videos detailing his desire to murder game developer Brianna Wu, now claims his actions were actually a “hoax” intended to be satire

Connors, whose real name is Jan Rankowski, revealed to Buzzfeed this past week that he never actually intended to harm Wu and that his threatening videos were really just an avant garde comedy routine meant to satirize hyperbolically misogynist video game fans. Needless to say, few of the people who have labored under GamerGate’s pall of fear for the last six months were terribly impressed by this, even if one does have to take pity on Rankowski since GamerGate and 8chan have now turned their sights on him for harassment.

According to Buzzfeed’s Joseph Bernstein, who first broke the story, Rankowski himself is now a target:

“And then the phone calls started. ‘People have been calling my old high school calling my work,’ Rankowski told BuzzFeed News, ‘and saying these nasty things about me. I was made to sign a contract at my job saying I wouldn’t make any of these videos again. I received a letter in the mail with a picture of me from my high school yearbook… It said I shouldn’t have fucked with 8chan.’”

But the necessary compassion we should feel for any human being put in that situation should not obscure the fact that Rankowski did precisely that to Brianna Wu and dozens of others, myself included, who wondered if we might be next. Sufficiently advanced trolling becomes indistinguishable from the thing it parodies. The performance can be so real that it performs precisely the same function as an act taken in perfect sincerity. To wit: Rankowski made Wu fear for her life.

This sorry episode is merely the latest in a string of hoaxes that derive their terroristic power from the day-to-day ugly realities of life online. And those who suggest that Wu or the rest of us can breathe easy now ignore the fact that such events are themselves catalytic. Even if the event was a hoax, it inspires other actions that are unarguably real.


Consider Elan Gale’s “Diane” hoax, where the Bachelor producer claimed to harass a rude female passenger on a commercial flight; the livetweeted “event” turned out to be fiction but inspired a spontaneous online horde of people named #TeamElan who took his call to arms seriously, sexually harassing people who spoke out questioning whether Gale had been cruel to Diane (he claimed to send her notes inviting her to suck his dick and so forth). That the initial event was fictional did not erase the fact that it became an incitement for real people to harass other real people, in other words.


An example of rape/death threats sent to Brianna Wu that were *not* from “Jace Connors.”

Similarly, the “Jace Connors” incident, which included multiple videos of the man promising to kill Brianna Wu, ignited further harassment of Wu once she came forward with the threats, both from GamerGaters angry that Wu was “attention whoring” and from those who argued point blank that she deserved to die anyway. It was one of the reasons she and her team at Giant Spacekat decided not to have a booth at the PAX East gaming conference in Boston, a premium space for independent developers to show off their games.

In response to Bernstein’s Buzzfeed story, many GamerGaters take this to be vindication that all death threats made against their targets are false and that no true Scotsman, er, GamerGater, engages in harassment. Meanwhile, still other GamerGaters (and some opponents of the movement as well, it must be said) took the opportunity to stigmatize mental illness as a means of explaining or handwaving “Jace Connor” away. Just as is the case with mass shootings, the threats were explained as a byproduct of mental illness (in this case schizophrenia) and nothing more.

In January, bomb threats on Twitter led to the grounding of two Atlanta-bound commercial airline flights; even if Gawker finds the troll in question terribly amusing, the fact remains that this fakery produces an ugly, very real effluence that should not be lightly dismissed, in part because prudence demands all such threats be taken seriously.

The culture of trolling has created a class of knowing commentators (and even some academics) who desperately want to appear to be in on the joke, savvy to this postmodern reality of illusive social interaction. To seem un-hip would be anathema to this group, after all, and in the words of New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum, “it’s boring to be offended, more boring than a bad joke.”

But we have to return to the question I opened  with: Is that epistemic uncertainty the price we have to pay as outspoken women in technology? Or, more broadly, as digital citizens in general? The internet has a famously casual relationship with the truth, spawning countless jokes (“someone on the internet said it, it has to be true!”), which becomes absolutely frightening when it descends to things like death or bomb threats.

Not knowing whether it’s real or fake is, after all, part of what makes up the terror in the first place. Forcing you to question your own most basic judgements of reality, whether you’re safe or not, making you doubt your senses — these are different ways of describing subtle forms of torture.


In the case of Jan Rankowski, however, we should also resist the temptation to take his sudden protests of comedy at face value. After all, and as Wu herself pointed out, how many times does one endure abuse online only to be told it’s “just a joke”? In the end this facile defense, even if offered sincerely, is just another way of avoiding accountability for one’s actions online. To troll requires a form of method acting, and in time one simply recapitulates what one satirizes, to say nothing of the fact that Wu was hardly in on this particular “joke.”

What’s more, there’s the lingering question of why Rankowski’s story, which is sourced only to him and to a comedy troupe in Rhode Island that hardly features any of his ‘work’, is being accepted as the truly factual interpretation of events. That troupe, Million Dollar Extreme, told the Daily Kos’ Margaret Pleiss “mind your own business, fuck face” when she asked for confirmation about whether or not Rankowski actually worked for them. Another edgy joke, perhaps?

Those considering this matter settled might want to see if Rankowski is truly contrite, by the way:

Death Threat Troll

“ParkourDude91″ is Rankowski, seen here referring to Brianna Wu with slurs, talking about how he’s “laughing” about the whole thing.

It seems that neither Joseph Bernstein nor the other people reporting uncritically on Rankowski’s trolling considered the possibility that they themselves might be being trolled. The attempt to wave all this away as bawdy humor gone awry feels eerily redolent of “boys will be boys” excuse-making, with all its depressing suggestions of inevitability and innateness.

This purported revelation from Rankowski is, indeed, big news; yet in all the ways that matter, it changes nothing. He still issued death threats to someone already under intense harassment from an online mob. Wu confirmed to Feministing that she has received other death threats, and there was, of course, the litany of threats that forced her and her family from her home in October. This online mob has also threatened, doxed, swatted, and dug into the private lives of dozens of women and our allies in the world of gaming, beginning from a terrifying act of domestic abuse against developer Zoe Quinn which drove her from her home.

What Jan Rankowski did? It was video-blogging fire in a crowded digital theatre. Is anyone going to answer for it?

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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