During GamerGate, Brianna Wu was bombarded with threats of rape, death and more.
A person in a skull mask uploaded a video to YouTube explaining how they would murder her. Someone else made a diagram of her house, which other apparent gamers used to make detailed plans of how they would enter and kill her.
The messages got so disturbing the Massachusetts game developer turned political activist said she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and didn’t feel safe at home for years.
But despite the attempts to discredit her, wreck her career and destroy her sense of safety, Wu has now become a vocal proponent of forgiveness for those who apologize and show they have grown.
“Over 100 Gamergaters have written me over the year asking for forgiveness, and I’ve thanked them and forgiven them every single time,” she wrote Tuesday on Twitter. “If I can understand people can grow past their worst moments, I think the rest of us can too.”
The conversation over how to hold people accountable for harming others online has flourished in recent years. If the right account retweets something, calling it out on harmful language or another bone of contention, an army of Twitter users will join in to chastise the original poster. Wu called this “mob justice.”
She said while this tactic can sometimes be useful, it raises the question of what happens next. People post destructive things on the Internet. Their comments often live forever on various platforms. But what if those people grow? What if they’re sorry?
Wu said it’s time to talk about redemption.
“For people that have messed up, what is the path back for them?” she asked.
GamerGate was a campaign of vicious online harassment against women in the gaming industry, as well as women and liberals in general.
The crusade started in 2014 with allegations that a woman in the gaming industry had slept with a journalist to secure better reviews for her game. It snowballed from there. Gamers threatened women across the industry as revenge for the supposed ethical lapse, sometimes vaguely and sometimes with alarming specificity.
The threats were based in violent misogyny, not concern over journalistic ethics, University of Maryland professor and computer scientist Jen Golbeck said. One threat, detailed in an FBI report on GamerGate, described plans for a mass shooting at a women’s center.
“The important lasting, lingering impact of it was it was one of the first grass-roots campaigns of harassment that had no real consequences for the people who did it,” Golbeck said. “It had a lot of real consequences for the people who were targeted.”
Wu — who has since run for Congress in Massachusetts and created a progressive PAC called Rebellion — became a target after speaking publicly about sexism in the gaming industry, creating a game with all-female characters and openly criticizing GamerGate.
In the years since GamerGate, Wu said she has received more than 100 apologies from the trolls and harassers who fixated on her. And though the apologies are outpaced 10-to-1 by insults and continued harassment, she says she forgives those who apologize nearly every time.
She wants to be clear: There are many people involved in GamerGate who have not learned and don’t deserve forgiveness. But some, she says, truly did and do. And when she hears their stories, she generally can’t help but tell them she accepts their apologies.
Wu said she gets a message about once a week along these lines: “Hey, you don’t know me, but I wanted reach out to you and apologize. I was part of the people sending you death threats and things during GamerGate. I was egged on by my friends, I was dealing with depression, I was in the closet, my parents were getting divorced, something like that. And I look back at that and I feel a deep sense of shame, and I’m very sorry.”
She said her conviction to forgive GamerGaters began after the first time she met one in 2015. She had just given a talk at a college, and he approached her afterward to explain why he had supported the movement.
“I’m not talking to a monster, I’m talking to someone that is under-socialized and lonely and is looking for respect, which I think is something all of us as humans understand,” she said. “It was such a lightbulb moment, that these aren’t people I should be angry with as much as people I should try to have empathy for.”
Toward the end of 2015, she said, a woman reached out to her to talk over Skype. The woman broke down in tears on the call as she apologized for harassing Wu, the game developer recalled, saying her life was terrible at the time and she was trying to “fit in with the boys.” So Wu forgave her. And she saw relief cross the woman’s face.
Wu said last month a trans woman reached out to offer an apology. She said she had been closeted at the time of GamerGate and didn’t send any harassing messages, but participated in the “horrible culture” that fueled them.
Over the years, Wu has posted several of these apologies to Twitter. One from last year reads, in part: “A few years ago, I was part of the GG thing online. I said some hateful things, and spread a lot of harmful rhetoric without fully grasping what I was doing.”
The message went on to apologize for hurting Wu and people she cares about. It ended by saying the person didn’t expect a reply or for their apology to be accepted, but Wu did reply.
“Please know your apology is gladly accepted,” she wrote. “Most people are unable to change their views, much less admit a mistake. I respect you for doing both. <3”
But accepting an apology does not equate to absolving someone of their guilt, she said, and does not mean she wants to keep talking to her harassers.
In one email exchange, a person who apologized for making diagrams of her home during GamerGate sent a follow-up asking Wu how she felt about the apology and whether it helped her move forward.
“I accept your apology — but do not mistake me for someone interested in telling you how I am or being friends,” Wu replied. “You clearly do not understand what you did to me or my family. If you really care about my well-being, leave me alone and never do this to anyone else.”
She said while there are still plenty of people who need to face consequences for online harassment — something she thinks law enforcement does an abysmal job of helping with — forgiving people who have grown benefits everyone involved.
“Forgiveness is as much about not letting a cancer eat you alive as it can be about you letting someone off the hook,” she said.
People tell her they were enduring physical abuse during GamerGate, dealing with depression, grappling with their gender and sexuality and more.
“Most of the stories I hear from GamerGaters are people dealing with tremendous trauma,” she said. “And I think you kind of have to be a monster to not want them to have resources for that trauma.”
It’s important to not let your anger over something turn you into the thing you’re fighting, she said. She didn’t want to let the terror of GamerGate turn her cruel.