Time, as people like to observe, hits differently these days. Living under pandemic restrictions, missing the usual milestones of birthdays, vacations, anniversary dinners and holiday gatherings has the feel of suspended animation. Yet the world, and particularly the virtual world that has been a retreat from the exterior one, seems to be accelerating. Time may be a flat circle, but it’s also an arrow. History races forward even while we are stuck in isolation. The wild momentum of 2021 has us trying to draw that line, to grasp the chain of events that led us here.
For a visual metaphor, try this row of dominoes that grow exponentially in size.
Here we see epic internet humor bro Elon Musk sharing a domino meme that casts blame for the deadly Capitol riot of January 6th on Facebook, which famously began with Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg’s idea for a web game where the user voted on the more attractive of two random people, with the photos scraped from a campus directory. Musk is profoundly annoying and often wrong (check out all the misinformation on the coronavirus he amplified!), but insofar as Facebook radicalized many who went on to be far-right terrorists, we can grant his point, mostly as he stole it from someone else.
Now, onto a less convincing sequence of cause and effect:
This is a shitposter’s callback, not an earnest attempt to connect two disparate events. If the 2016 killing of Harambe, a Cincinnati Zoo gorilla, somehow triggered a viral outbreak that was first identified in China more than three years later, it would have to be in a way so abstract as to be unprovable. Nonetheless, you can label the dominoes however you like, either for a laugh or, more unfortunately, to push a narrative that has the flimsiest of relationships to the truth.
The latter isn’t always done out of intent to deceive, but sometimes in an effort to set new and tumultuous happenings into a familiar pattern. When faced with the story of Reddit’s r/wallstreetbets community squeezing hedge funds by investing in companies those firms had shorted, including the moribund retailer GameStop, not a few observers instinctively compared it to Gamergate, an appallingly vicious 2014-2015 harassment campaign against a number of women in the video game industry.
This is lazy conflation at best and stereotyping at worst, a knee-jerk response that casts any group of internet troublemakers as violently misogynist neckbeards. We can acknowledge what’s disturbing in the WSB saga — bigoted language and jokes on the subreddit, alleged threats against and hacking of prominent Wall Street figures and their families — without suggesting it’s the result of sexist resentment, or purely vindictive.
Gamergate had no coherent objective besides the coordinated abuse of women on the bullshit pretext of “ethics in video games journalism,” whereas the Reddit stock traders have something to gain beyond the punishment of the financial sector: They are apparently donating profits to charity, paying off student loans, covering family medical bills and expensive veterinary surgeries. The forum undoubtedly has its toxic side, but it’s neither 100 percent male nor devoid of positive, healthy camaraderie built around lifting one another up. You don’t even have to like them to realize this.
Also driving the Gamergate-to-GameStop misconception (besides, uh, the word “game”) are reports that Nazis and anti-Semites on Telegram and 4chan have taken a keen interest in the suffering of hedge funds, which in their minds are controlled by money-grubbing Jews.
The fever dreams of these hateful creeps, however, do not make the broader insurgency a racist one. And that’s to say nothing of the hideous politics and ideologies embodied within the mainstream investor establishment. Is this handful of Pepe-waving white supremacists profiting off a pandemic? Did they exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria? Have they ever eliminated 2,000 jobs in a small Nebraska town? Do they invest in companies that literally finance genocide?
Because the titans of Wall Street have actually done all those things. It’s not as though we have to defend the webforum fascists, but making them out to be an instigating rather than opportunistic force in this scenario is myopic, and it can provide welcome cover for the loathsome billionaires who are openly despoiling the planet.
It would be better to root for no one than pretend the giant funds losing money on high-risk bets are being victimized as the targets of the Gamergate trolls were. And more accurate, if not as eye-catching, to say that the WSB gang are motivated by their own Robin Hood mythos, not the lingering fumes of a reactionary cycle that unfolded half a decade ago. The fact is, Gamergate began with the project of destroying certain women, then created bogus reformist aims as a front for that harassment; the Reddit traders, though, started with the purpose of making money on “dumb,” aggressive strategies, and their craziest play was also an opportunity to trample the rich, since they were incidentally operating in a regulated ecosystem of winners and losers.
Invoking Gamergate as the boogeyman to explain this only muddies the waters and becomes a form of denial: You’re reaching for a red-button catchphrase instead of thinking seriously about the kinds of disillusionment, precarity and conflict that produce a transformation like we’re seeing now. Some of the anger that informed the previous shitshow is present here, but this boiling grievance is everywhere online, and not unique to a single controversy. Do yourself the favor of looking a little deeper.
Otherwise, I regret to say, we’re going to see much more of this: