The Internet is the Wild West.

By Suvi Andrea Helminen

The Internet is the Wild West in many ways, it is a masquerade, a second life where there are no face-to-face consequences for how people behave. Words are being shot back and forth in duels between opposing opinions. People can say very hurtful things and remain anonymous.

Last winter Open Documentary Lab fellow Thorsten Trimpop and I filmed an interview with game developer Brianna Wu and her husband Frank about how they had been harassed online by an anonymous mob known as #GamerGate. In recent months members of the #GamerGate community have become famous for targeting outspoken feminist women in the game industry, attempting to systematically ruin their careers. They do this for example by sending death threats, writing horrendous tweets, hacking their Wiki pages, fabricating and spreading false stories online or even hacking their companies’ bank accounts. Bystanders in the game world debate amongst themselves if the death threats towards Brianna Wu are serious, and if she is just using the whole charade as an opportunity to promote her own career. It is hard to distinguish facts from fiction if you Google it.

The video we made is a personal account of Brianna and Frank’s experiences of being harassed online. I uploaded the video a month ago. Twenty four hours after upload,the video had 60 dislikes and a number of insulting comments attached to it. I realized that my video was becoming a vessel for further harassment. The following day I had to disable the comments because they were offensive to my subjects, for example ”Brianna Wu, Nobody Wants To Rape You,” ”I couldn’t watch any more of this BS” or just simply ”Morons.” Some of the comments even promoted fabricated stories about Brianna’s private life. It seems as though certain web-audiences don’t always realize that the people on the film are in fact human beings with real feelings. It was no sober debate. It was back to school yard bullying. This episode left me with a series of thoughts about my current work with web documentaries.

It is harder to control the life of a film on the web, and there has been a shift in the expectations of how media is consumed and treated by the audience. Our subjects make themselves vulnerable by sharing their personal stories. How do we protect them when we publish online? For interactive documentary filmmakers, some of the buzzwords are participation and contribution, but how do we ensure the well-being of our subjects in this constellation? Is it even possible? Who is the sheriff in this Wild West scenario?
Watch the interview here.

Suvi Andrea Helminen
Fellow, MIT Open Documentary Lab
Comparative Media Studies/Writing