Debate and Reputation in the Digital Age

A few weeks ago I wrote about the heads of Fine Brothers Entertainment, Benny and Rafi Fine, and the scandal they faced when they announced a new project which would entail trademarking their React franchise. I said my piece as a fan and I told myself I wouldn’t dwell on it any longer, but of course as a consumer of their content I’ve still been consistently exposed to the ongoing backlash every time I decide to watch one of their videos on YouTube. Their videos since their apology have been the battleground of competing “Likes” and “Dislikes” and the comment sections are frenzies of hashtags either protesting the Fine Bros or counter-protesting the negative campaign. I had never seen any video get past a few hundred Dislikes before this, but recent FBE and React videos all have between four and five figure Likes and Dislikes – the highest I’ve seen either reach was around 200,000. For a long while the only comments were regarding the scandal and backlash and it took a few weeks for viewers to actually begin referencing the videos again.

As I said, I fell back into the silent observer position, until being exposed to certain other media that made me reconsider the narrative of the scandal as it continues to play out, along with a brand new scandal that has many of the same detractors up in arms. The first was a certain HBO program called Generation Kill – an adaption of a Rolling Stones article and book by reporter Evan Wright, produced by the creators of the previous hit HBO program The Wire. The show is about an elite United States Marine Corps unit, the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, whose members were the first American military personnel to enter Iraq during the 2003 invasion. According to the book, despite this prestigious distinction the unit quickly became bogged down in quagmires due to misguided interpretations of military bureaucracy and what’s heavily implied to be incompetency from higher level officers. I only got through the first chapter of someone else’s copy of the book, but reviews imply that the program stays fairly close to the source matter and may even have done a better job of portraying the life of an enlisted Marine.

The officer negligence in particular is portrayed in such a way that is both thematically entertaining but also realistic enough to make it infuriating. I immediately began looking up the Marines who were featured in the program for my own peace of mind, and my first stop was one Captain Schwetje, called “Encino Man” by his enlisted personnel because of his perceived stupidity. My jaw dropped when one of the first results led me to what I’m assuming is his LinkedIn page…..detailing how he now holds the dual title of “Strategic Planning Manager” and “Director of Intelligence Operations.” This made me question everything about Evan Wright’s account, so of course I had to do some deeper digging. I found various interviews and blogs mentioning the Marines of 1st Recon who were featured in the book and miniseries, including a one-post blog penned by one of the very officers closer to top of the battalion’s food chain, former Lieutenant Colonel Michael Shoup.

Shoup was the Forward Air Controller for the battalion and wrote a very eloquent, factual, and to-the-point “Commentary on Generation Kill” that criticized several inaccuracies he found in the book – to which Evan Wright posted an equally eloquent, factual and direct rebuttal straight to the blog. This was probably the most informative and thoughtful discussion I found on the subject (not to mention the most courteous online discussion I’ve seen in years), but it wasn’t the only one. One of the characters to take most of the command bashing was Gunnery Sergeant Daniel Griego, the Operations Chief for the Company Wright was attached to and portrayed in the series as Captain Schwetje’s sidekick “Casey Kasem”, whose dialogue suggests he enforces the rigidity of military hierarchy for the sake of keeping his own authority (I think it’s important to note that they have Griego, a noncommissioned officer, pointedly talking down to Marines of equal or higher rank only when Schwetje is immediately present).

Like Shoup, Gunny Griego responded online to claims made in the book by way of another blog, though unlike the short Colonel Griego’s response was not eloquent and is extremely abrasive, derogatory, and inflammatory. When searching for details on the subject online, I found plenty of people taking sides through similar formats. I have my own opinion that is clearly colored too much by the series and my own emotional projections onto the characters – I’m inclined to believe Wright’s notetaking as a journalist and his commitment to portray what he saw as he saw over the defensiveness I noticed in Shoup and Griego’s rebuttals. Yet it says a lot that this was a short time period in fairly long careers of both men in the Corps, especially for Griego, whose name is treated with respect for heroic actions on subsequent tours in Iraq. To much of the online civilian community, Griego is known first and foremost as the two-faced “Casey Kasem,” but I found a few examples of outsiders willing to stand up for his reputation.

The book of Generation Kill was released in 2004 and the miniseries 2008; the latest posting I’ve found on the topic was 2010. This was all done as the open forum nature of the internet was truly being realized, yet how far we’ve come since makes it seem like it was a century ago. The fact that these grizzled, old-school military veterans took to cyberspace to set the record the straight in their eyes says a lot about the impact the digital world has on real world dialogue. At this point (if you haven’t already by the second paragraph) you’re probably wondering where exactly I’m going with this –  for that, I’ll have to go into my second example, which is one that is undoubtedly much better known in the Internet….Gamergate.

This is a can of worms I was completely unaware of when it was at its peak, and once I found out about it and delved into the details, I wished I had never heard of it. I only got back into it when my guilty pleasure, the Cracked website, recycled a series of articles on the subject. This is still a contentious subject to the people involved, especially to those who still maintain that their focus in the campaign was to combat a lack of ethics in video game journalism. The narrative overwhelming shifted away from this – or might have shifted back – to one of systematic and seemingly pathological misogyny, the eye of the resulting storm centered on the “indie game” developer whose story sparked the movement: Zoe Quin. Quinn was turned into the most hated person on the internet when an ex-boyfriend posted a tirade against her detailing her supposed sexual manipulation of the industry on several forums, which steamrolled into the Gamergate campaign to expose widespread corruption in the gaming media. The claim was that Quinn had actively gone out of her way to sleep with certain journalists to promote her game and that this was evidence of a system of collaboration between developers and game reviewers.

This is something I can’t be neutral about – even the best-intentioned (relatively to those who psychologically tortured people to prove they could) of the “Gamergaters” were driven by misguided feelings and gross misinterpretation of consistent human flaws. They were wrong from the start because they didn’t even know what they were fighting against exactly, so many just gave into their primal rage (as so aptly put by Joss Whedon) to express themselves and latched onto the easiest targets to unleash their previously impotent anger. There’s more than a few issues present in modern journalism, which I found out when I got to be a small-time journalist on and off over a few years. Although I came to respect the dedication of reporters to the job itself, I learned to dislike many of them on a personal basis. That’s not to say they were bad people in any regard, but I found in many of them a complete emotional detachment from their audience, as well as a lack of respect and trust for segments that they deemed unreliable for various reasons. I saw intelligent, mild-mannered people disregard and judge whole populations based on one-dimensional criteria, and few realized that their power over the spread of information caused this to have a cascade effect that warps the mind of readers and viewers. I left journalism for public relations precisely because of this, as no matter how ostensibly corporate PR is or was, it allowed more two-way dialogue than journalism did at that time for me. I applaud the journalists who are slowly changing this with tools like social media, but I still find old-school reporters and editors who believe they know what people need to hear and HOW to hear it, and even if they don’t want to hear it that way then that’s their problem.

There are a lot of reasons for this – I think in the post-Watergate cynicism that taints our information gathering, they – or we, rather – take for granted that everyone has dirty laundry to hide and that it’s our job to expose both that dirt with the assumption that having any secrets makes them bad people. I’ve seen this assumption make journalists lose respect and empathy for people, immediately and over time. Even if you try to separate yourself from this initially, eventually you’re swayed – either by the stories of your colleagues and mentors, or your own interactions with even momentary bouts of dishonesty that build up over time. Sooner or later you find damning scoops in even the most honest of mistakes, and end up unwittingly slanting both the writing and the questions asked to the point where someone’s reputation is now on the line for something they had no control over. Once, I inadvertently helped my editor and another coworker severely strain the relationship between our state capital’s public school system and a nonprofit they worked with when we went investigating a story concerning both based solely on misinterpreted hearsay. My coworker almost bragged about illegally recording the superintendent of the school district during an interview– he apparently was convinced the man was hiding something. We never even spoke of it again after our source clarified and ultimately recanted her earlier information, and I don’t think anyone from our side even bothered to apologize. What Gamergaters call corruption, I call the apathy that comes from dehumanizing and undervaluing an audience, whether due to defensiveness or laziness. I’m definitely not defending the “gaters” by any means, but at least some of the ammunition for their campaign did come from some very real (yet relatively minor) problems.

I myself stopped paying any focused attention to video game journalism around five or six years ago – they’re simply wasn’t enough content that I could bring myself to care about. Though I’m probably not reflective of the average video game news consumer, the loudest feedback indicates that there’s not a lot of reverence for the opinions of individual reporters, outlets and the industry as a whole. There’s a persistent narrative that centers on accusations of incompetence and corruption, and dismissal of dissenting opinions as belonging to either camp. Is it any wonder gaming journalists wouldn’t take their audience seriously, when that audience has rarely offered them the same benefit? I’m probably potentially adding fuel to the fire by saying that, but I think it was that distance and mutual lack of respect (even if it wasn’t aimed at the whole) that provided the kindling that made the fiasco, and it continues to simmer.

The nicest thing I can say about the people that were/are part of Gamergate is that they saw a half-hearted pebble fight between glass houses, and decided to throw boulders at one’s house guests because they thought the owners were being too loud. Then they started throwing them at the guests’ families and friends to make a point. I’ve probably already said too much on a horse that was beaten past death a long time ago, but the best thing to take away from the Gamergate scandal is that it reaffirmed an important thing about the digital world: it is connected in a very real way to the real world and what’s happens in the former WILL affect the latter. The things said in forums and message boards bled over into ‘real life,’ and just like the group Anonymous, the Gamergaters were able to use the information gathering and sharing aspects of the Internet as tools to create real, physical consequences for their targets. Again, I’m not condoning the actions of the ‘gaters in any way, shape, or form, but I think it’s important to acknowledge their impact and what it could mean for the future.

This piece was already taking me too long to put out as I was on the fence about whether to rehash all these old arguments, and then something happened that made me delay further. Almost coincidentally, another content creator that I follow had their own issue with the copyright claims system, but this time they were on the opposite side of situation. TeamFourStar, a group that “Abridges” Japanese anime shows – that is, people who dub over the animation to make parodies of it -, had their channel taken down for about a day after several copyright violation strikes against their videos. They did exactly the right thing and put out a very even-handed video explaining the incident, their thoughts on its cause, their stance on the ongoing debate and presented information to fans on how to voice support if they so choose. I immediately went to the comments and sure enough the first few I noticed were other, smaller content creators complaining about their own strikes and eventually someone called on TFS to take a bigger stance against the system, using language that felt to me as a little too similar to that used in the Gamergate campaign and Fine Bros incident. TFS responded in a continued correspondence and maintained their composure and, more importantly, their current stance.

I’ve waited to see if anything else came of this particular, but I haven’t seen anything definitive from TFS’ side or anything more than opinions since February 28. Things have changed for the Fine Bros, though, as the Dislikes and inflammatory hashtags have finally died down. There are a few of the latter here and there in the latest video on their main channel as of this post, but they quickly were drowned out by the “counter-reactionaries” in the comments and the React channel had none that I could see. I’m still holding my breath, because I fully believe that this issue is going to reach a new stage within the next few months, or perhaps even in the next few weeks. It’s important to note that this is not the first time this has happened nor is it the first time that TFS has responded: member Nick “Lanipator” Landis addressed this back in 2009 when Toei Animation, the producers of the original DragonBall Z anime that TFS parodies, previously levied copyright strikes against them. I noticed quite a few similarities in the language of the response and the comments, yet I also noticed some key differences. Landis’ response back then was still well put together, both cerebral and direct, but it’s clearly opinionated and relies solely on his (and his group’s) point of view as a content creator – and a victim.

 The new video stands in almost stark contrast to the earlier response in its even-handedness and its reserving of judgment and blame. Landis himself mentions in other media that they took their time in crafting a response as they took steps to handle the situation with their partners and Multi-Channel Network. They waited until they had all the details, then responded with facts and informed opinions and ended the message with a calm call to action – everything PR rhetoric tells you to do in a crisis situation. I can’t impress upon you how hard it can be to get executives handling millions to accept not letting their pride get before the company, and a small group of internet entrepreneurs stuck in a transformative use content limbo managed to hit the sweetest note of crisis response I’ve seen since the Johnson & Johnson Tylenol fiasco.  More importantly, the language in the video also stands somewhat in contrast to the language being used elsewhere in the campaign, some of which repeats the mistakes I saw in the campaign against the Fine Bros and shows potential for repeating some of the mistakes of Gamergate (Hopefully, HOPEFULLY, not the sexism and harassment). I should also point out that in their personal Twitter accounts, the members of TFS have expressed themselves more individually and emotionally than in their video, and while this is usually considered faux pas and counter-productive in the general world of corporate crisis PR I think that for now the video by itself stands out enough for the sake of their brand image.

Getting back to the matter at hand, the campaign – identified by the labels Where’s the Fair Use (#WTFU) and #MakeYouTubeGreatAgain – is already getting caught up in moralist language which paints the affected YouTubers as victims and underdogs fighting against an unjust system that blatantly favors greedy media giants, and there’s allusions that YouTube is colluding with them. There are several problems with this narrative: first is that YouTube was required legally to put a system in place that would give companies the ability to take down videos using their original content, or the site itself would face liability and be open to lawsuits. There’s also the fact that YouTube has appeared to be very open to working and promoting individual content creators. What should also be taken into consideration is that many of these content creators DO use original content to make their productions, like TFS’ flagship series DragonBall Z Abridged, use both the original animation slides and even keeps the overall story and characters intact to make the parody. Then there’s also a huge issue in the monetization of ad revenue on content that many of these independent content producers benefit from, to the point where they have been able to make careers of it. TFS also sells merchandise which uses original concepts that are, however, based on character designs and plot elements from the works of corporations like Toei, and I know for a fact that they’re definitely not the only internet-based company to do so. Lastly, probably the most important issue is that the basis for the laws governing the copyright system were not created with platforms like YouTube in mind and the legal requirements for Fair Use have been left almost purposefully vague. There are little to no metrics for many aspects of copyright violation on YouTube and consequently the argument up to this point has existed in somewhat of a gray area. Though it seems most involved are clearly on the side of the independent creators gaining more flexibility with Fair Use, some have pointed out that the current vagueness of the law is what allows some of this content that uses appropriated intellectual property to exist.

When I first began this piece, it was to comment on the backlash against the Fine Bros and how though it continued past their apology it was beginning to die down slowly. With the revelations I learned after reading into the Marines involved in Generation Kill, I wanted to speak about how reputation is being made and maintained in the digital age – something I’ve heard so many theories on after getting into PR. I had to spend hours looking through old articles, message boards, videos, and comment sections to try to get a feel for what drove people to make the judgments they did of others and led them to take such strong stances on those judgments. As you can probably imagine, by the time I let myself be distracted by and get dragged into the discussion around Gamergate, I was emotionally drained after reading through some of the atrocious things people write when they have anonymity and lack of liability on their side. Yet by the time TFS’ takedown happened, I was noticing something through all the misguided rage and “flaming.” The first thing I noticed was something I alluded to before with the Fine Bros scandal, that in response to ongoing campaigning from reactionaries that bordered on harassment there seemed to be a new wave of counter-reactionaries attempting to shout them down. “Shout” may not be the correct term as most of them weren’t anywhere near as passionate as the reactionaries and most seemed to just be mocking their behavior. Still, it says a lot that viewers actually took steps in a sort of self-regulation campaign to drown out the negativity.

When I first wrote about the Fine Bros scandal I tried to keep a neutral stance because while I believe that the backlash was predictable, and FBE probably needed a lesson in understanding their audience better, I also believe that the type of backlash they received was unwarranted, unnecessary, and ultimately detrimental to enacting real change. The campaign against them only accomplished its goals through brute force, and the continuing personal attacks take away from its legitimacy. I’d also like to point out that, despite the narrative put forward by some YouTubers that the backlash was the result of the Internet rising as one to fight against potential oppressors, there are quite a few who ignore or dismiss the hateful vitriol espoused by many who criticize the Fine Bros – namely the rather brazen Antisemitism used all over the web to tear them down. This is the same problem that plagues Gamergate’s narrative, and though nearly everyone I saw referencing it on social media always fell back on anti-feminism and inflammatory accusations against journalists at one point or another, if there was ever anyone who didn’t agree with those tactics or just wanted to see actual change in video game reporting then all their messages are forever tainted by their association. If the Fine Bros scandal had gone on any longer then the language would probably had gotten even more incendiary and the backlash could have been dismissed as racism and prejudice. Handling campaigns with a mob, instead of an informed group of individuals, guarantees their legitimacy gets thrown out of the window in a real debate.

I do see a bright side in all this – besides the counter-reactionaries on the FBE channel, I noticed some interesting developments on the GamerGate Tweets page. There’s apparently a new story about a Nintendo employee – supposedly a feminist – who made some remarks regarding child pornography and age to consent laws. A few tweets were railing against Gamergaters who were apparently defending her. I didn’t see any of the offending tweets, which might mean that these people are disassociating themselves from the movement by no longer using its hashtag for every post. This at least shows the possibility that there are breaks in the ranks and some people are moving away from the mob. It should say something that while Gamergate succeeded in making a few people’s lives hell (still claiming there’s no evidence it was them) and getting a few ads removed for a short while, they galvanized much of the tech and video game industry against them and have only served to convince industry leaders to expedite the process of liberalization they’re fighting against. There’s something lamentable, however, in that there’s a chance that many more wouldn’t be following the misguided narrative of Gamergate if these discussions were had sooner and more openly. An article was written about how gamers are ‘dead,’ that is, the marketing demographic they make up of hypersexualized and violent young males is no longer relevant. While I think the sentiment is true, and that people misread the article’s point, the language used by the author was purposefully combative and probably as reactionary as the Gamergaters’ language. The comments on the article showed that people who may have been on the fence, likely mostly white males, now had a reason to join the other side out of pure defensiveness. Some of those could have joined in on the personal attacks and threats that ruined some people’s lives.

As I said, this post was originally supposed to be solely about reputation – public relations has always been, in my opinion, the management of reputation. Unfortunately, most judgments that people make that form a reputation are often based on under-informed opinions gained from a group rather than an individual’s own knowledge, like a game of Telephone. I’d be lying if I said that PR people didn’t take advantage of that fact just as much as they actively combat it. Regardless, I saw a glimmer of hope in all this muck that internet discourse might provide a way to at least alter that. The #WTFU campaign probably won’t be the one to do it, it might take years or even decades, but I think the potential is there. TFS is hands down my favorite content creator so I’m obviously biased, but I greatly admire the stance they took and HOW they took it. It probably also says a lot that they seem to have become the catalyst for a new public explosion of the movement, as evidenced by the public outcry that very likely contributed to their speedy processing and restoration on YouTube. This is reflective, of course, of the good reputation they have within the community for both their good content and their transparency with fans. They have managed to stay humble and approachable while still appearing professional (especially for what ostensibly started out as a hobby) as they grew from relative obscurity to having two million subscribers and counting.

As I keep saying, reputation is a key theme – Gunny Griego’s was caught between a media representation and the war stories told by other Marines. Soldiers revere him while most civilians only see the fictionalized account. He had a chance to plead his case, but he let his pride get in the way and his defensiveness was not read well in light of how he was already portrayed. The few who got on his side latched onto the “journalists are anti-Corps” narrative. Similarly, Gamergate allowed themselves to be defined by the “feminists and journalists are anti-gamer” narrative, and though I believe that even their core message has been corrupted from the start I also believe this originally came out of a sense of defensiveness and exclusion as well. At its heart, Gamergate is about conservative gamers who felt they weren’t being listened to and let themselves get caught up in divisive rhetoric that’s reflective of the ongoing political divide in the real world. What’s funny to me is the amount of people claiming allegiance to Gamergate that also claim to be liberal, gay and/or transgender who don’t seem to realize their movement was started by a B-list celebrity who’s heavily hinted he’s not a fan of their lifestyle. People from their own side no longer want to listen to them because of the association, and the conservatives themselves don’t realize that the problem isn’t necessarily their views, it’s that they express them so reprehensibly. The constant attacks against fairly public figures ensure they will never be taken seriously. Finally, there’s both the Fine Bros and the people who came out against them. The Fine Bros themselves overlooked their own reputation and ignored the consequences of past actions, like also going after a well-liked public figure, and going after smaller content creators – and not realizing that segment probably made up a sizable portion of the YouTube audience. The detractors also overlooked the goodwill the Fine Bros’ almost immediate cancellation of React World bought along with the apology, no matter their own views on it. Public will was no longer in their favor and their constant barbs are now seen by some as being spiteful, myself included.

I have something of a personal stake in the #WTFU movement now that my favorite content creators have gotten behind it, and though they already have a website where content is hosted a wider ruling clamping down of Fair Use could possibly see that go down along with their YouTube channel. However, even without that I support the growth of YouTube as a place where independent content creators can become entrepreneurs like TFS, the Fine Bros, and many others have. It’s become an alternate space with its own economy, a place people can get into without going through the barriers of traditional media. That’s why I think it’s important to maintain that space and make sure its reputation as a platform for creativity isn’t overtaken by wild accusations and more of the same “Us vs Them” mentality.

I made a joke before about the misogynistic harassment in Gamergate happening with WTFU, but as seen with nearly every argument I talked about they all frequently and consistently broke down into chaotic mud-slinging……and the CEO of YouTube IS a woman, and some people ARE painting the company as the enemy. A rational person wouldn’t be so petty and obtuse, but I think I’ve shown enough evidence that an emotionally driven mob is usually anything but rational.Not only would it be EXTREMELY regrettable if new reactionaries started going after easy but useless targets, it could tank the entire campaign – AND make the argument of every content creator for freedom of expression illegitimate by association. This issue will only be completely solved when it’s brought to the government’s attention and a real dialogue can be had with the media giants.  Whatever can be said about the likes of Benny and Rafi Fine, Zoe Quinn, or Anita Sarkeesian, they do have the cash, political will, or veritable army of lawyers that these major companies have – especially if they band together against a perceived common threat. If the internet mob repeats the same tactics, best case scenario is the proceedings get stalled as courts try to define harassment and danger in the digital capacity. Worst case is that a good lawyer draws a straight line from any real world harassment to comments made on the social media of content creators involved in #WTFU.

It was explained to me some time ago by a lawyer that in civil court cases, the onus is on the judge to make the decision that leaves them with the least liability – anything that has the potential to produce real, physical consequences. If the judge dismisses a case against a potential harasser, and the alleged victim continues to be harassed then the judge could lose his job. In the case of Zoe Quinn, she couldn’t prove that it was Eron Gjoni harassing her as most of her abusers were claiming other reasons and causes.  The difference with #WTFU is that there are real identifiable people and real companies at the head of the campaign. They have much more liability than an individual or a Twitter group; there’s a chance the argument for recognizing online speech could be dismissed as it was in Quinn’s case, but there’s also a chance that it these content creators can be accused of inciting hate speech or attacks and it could open a whole new discussion about policing online speech. YouTube and websites like it could be painted as breeding grounds for violent expression and dangerous actions – there’s been precedent slowly building up for either side of the argument. So above all else, TFS, the Nostalgia Critic, and every other content creator invested in this debate has to treat this like a professional campaign – one clear, decisive message not muddled by accusations and primal sentiments. The important thing for everyone to remember is that the “other side” is made up of human beings too. Through all the evil, evil vitriol I had to wade through to type this, I saw that there is the potential for real, thoughtful debate on the internet and from the people who occupy it. There’s a real chance here to dispel the myths about the armies of “trolls” and make the digital world a space for real discussion of real world issues – and not just a safer soundbox for oversimplified and one-dimensional personal opinions (which, I’d like to point out, BOTH sides of the political spectrum are guilty of – trust me, I saw it firsthand in researching this). People are only as simple – and unreasonable – as they allow themselves to be.

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