By all accounts, Zoe Quinn – the 28-year-old video game developer whose personal life sparked the internet conflagration known as Gamergate – had a solid, even winnable, criminal harassment case.
Since August 2014, when her ex-boyfriend, Eron Gjoni, posted a 9000-word screed about her online, Quinn and her family had been deluged by threats so severe that Quinn fled her home in Boston, afraid for her life. Gjoni’s online “hate mob,” as Quinn described it to a municipal judge that September, had unearthed her address and old nude photos, hacked her website, promised to kill and rape her, and placed multiple threatening calls to her father’s home in upstate New York – all of which Quinn had meticulously documented and organised in evidentiary zip-drive folders.
But as the date for Gjoni’s February 24 arraignment hearing drew closer, Quinn found herself wavering. The court case had made her ex something of an online celebrity, a role he gleefully embraced, and the hate mob had only grown bolder.
Two years after Gamergate began and multiple restraining orders later, Zoe Quinn is walking away from a criminal …
Two years after Gamergate began and multiple restraining orders later, Zoe Quinn is walking away from a criminal harassment case in favor of talking openly about her story. Photo: Screenshot: Washington Post
“Is there any way to back out?” Quinn emailed assistant District Attorney Mary Nguyen on January 15. “He did another post yesterday and now stuff like this is popping up. …”
She attached a screenshot from the Reddit forum “GGFreeForAll”: “If Eron goes to jail,” the post reads, “I will hunt Zoe Quinn down and rape her.”
Quinn wasn’t necessarily scared by this faceless Reddit troll – the statement is typical of her inbox and Twitter “@”-replies these days. But to Quinn, it confirmed a fear voiced by other victims of cyberharassment before her: that the legal system couldn’t, or wouldn’t, ever really protect her from the internet hordes.
Zoe Quinn has described the ordeal as “exhausting”.
Zoe Quinn has described the ordeal as “exhausting”. Photo: Twitter: Zoe Quinn
According to a review by Danielle Citron, a professor of law at the University of Maryland and the author of the book “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace,” only 10 cyberstalking cases were filed in federal courts between 2010 and 2013, despite statistics suggesting that millions of people had been stalked or harassed online during that time. In June, Rep. Katherine M. Clark, D-Mass, introduced legislation that would force the Justice Department and FBI to devote more resources to cyberharassment, because – as she said, on the House floor – “we are failing these women.”
Quinn herself had been forced, on multiple occasions, to explain “Twitter” and “doxing” and “online mobs” to judges and officers unfamiliar with any of those concepts. Despite new cyberstalking and harassment legislation in many states and growing public awareness of these problems, the legal system remains unwilling, or unable, to resolve all but the most straightforward of them.
“What we’re seeing now is the law’s limits,” Citron said. “Mobs have little fear of the law, and unfortunately, Zoe is the victim of that.”
By all accounts, Zoe Quinn had a solid and winnable case.
By all accounts, Zoe Quinn had a solid and winnable case. Photo: Screenshot: Washington Post
But the mob who has victimised Quinn is a special case. While the hateful and amorphous trolls who collectively called themselves “Gamergate” have since morphed into a neo-reactionary movement, bent largely on fighting “social justice warriors” online, its roots lie in Quinn and Gjoni’s personal relationship, which has been debated to the point of exhaustion by both sides.
Undisputed is the fact that the pair met online in late 2013, then – after a tumultuous six months or so – broke up in July 2014. Both claim to have felt abused or wronged by the other, but only Gjoni published the details online. One month after the breakup, he posted a seven-part chronicle of their relationship, complete with annotated chat logs and lurid sexual details, and promoted the links in a series of forums known for their antipathy toward female and progressive game developers. He would later tweet that he suspected “The Zoepost” would provoke harassment but that he chose to publish anyway.
As predicted, the forums quickly latched onto the post – particularly Gjoni’s allegation that Quinn had slept with a writer at a prominent gaming website, presumably to score a good review. Within days, the uproar over “ethics in gaming journalism” had grown from forum chatter to full-blown abuse. Gjoni publicly condemned it, while simultaneously blogging and tweeting that he believed the hell visited on Quinn was deserved. Reached by phone, Gjoni told The Washington Post that, looking back on everything that has happened since, he would still choose to publish “The Zoepost,” minus a joke about Five Guys that morphed into a slut-shaming meme.
“If I ever see you are doing a pannel [sic] at an event I’m going to, I will literally kill you,” one person messaged Quinn on Tumblr, according to court documents. Wrote another: “I’m not going to stop spreading your disgusting nudes around and making sure your life is a living hell until you either kill yourself or I rape you to death.”
After a month of this deluge, Quinn applied for an order of protection against Gjoni in a Boston municipal court.
“My personal info like my home address, phone number, emails, passwords and those of my family have been widely distributed, alongside nude photos of me, and several of my professional accounts and those of my colleagues have been hacked,” she wrote as part of her application. “Eron has coached this mob multiple times … and doesn’t seem to be stopping.”
The court was convinced by Quinn’s application: In late September 2014, a judge granted her a year-long restraining order, which – as Gjoni points out – has a lower evidentiary standard than is typically required in other sorts of civil cases. Much of it was boilerplate, barring Gjoni from contacting Quinn or walking within 150 yards of her. But the judge, apparently perplexed by the subject of the “online mob” – court transcripts show that, at one point, he asked Quinn what exactly that was – also wrote in a special clause, prohibiting Gjoni from publishing further information about her.
“I just hope to, you know, give you some relief,” the judge said – but the restraining order seemed to have the exact opposite effect. Gjoni, who contends that the write-in could be used to “silence activists,” of whom he is self-admittedly not one, promptly began soliciting funds online for his legal defense, which drew further attention and outrage to the ambiguous online movement. Within a span of weeks, they had begun latching onto Quinn’s friends, employers and defenders, finding more menacing ways to embarrass, threaten or silence her. (It was around this time when Quinn’s father started receiving, by anonymous mail, ejaculate-stained pictures of his daughter.)