I’d like to share my story in support for #stopcyberbullyingday. I’ve been dealing with personal and professional attacks via the internet for the better part of the last year. In that time, I’ve seen at least three people take their lives because of bullying on social media. Here’s what happened to me.
I woke up one morning in August 2019 as Lottie Bevan, a thirty-year-old video game developer. I owned, along with my long-term fiancé, a small indie games studio that had just scaled up to five people. I’d made Cultist Simulator, an indie success story that had won a bunch of awards and made more money than expected. I was a current BAFTA Breakthrough Brit, and a month earlier we’d won big at a high-profile British awards ceremony. I was the happiest I’ve ever been.
That day, we’d finalised the most in-depth mentorship scheme in British indie games and were a week away from launching a £100,000 Kickstarter for our next project. It was also the first anniversary of a feminist meet-up I’d started, Coven Club, which organised monthly meet-ups for women in the industry to counteract sexism and female isolation in games.
By the end of that day, I was crying on a pair of London constables as they wrote up ‘malicious communication’ case notes from literally thousands of tweets which said my partner was ‘an abuser’, my company should fold, my employees should leave, my mentorship scheme should shut down, and my career was a front for harming women.
Two ex-lovers of my fiancé, who were game developers associated with his ex-studio, had tweeted that my partner’s historic consensual relationships with them had actually been abusive because he’d been head of a studio. One person had never been his employee, the other had been a casual partner who’d accepted a job at his studio while they were dating. But that was enough. Their friend, another developer who’d never had any sort of non-professional relationship with my partner, tweeted her support. The ex-studio, with whom we were not on good terms, tweeted in solidarity.
It snowballed. None of this has any real-world counterpart – no complaints or allegations outside of social media – but here’s what just some tweets can do.
This had direct and immediate professional repercussions for me. All employees resigned; we had no choice but to cancel the Kickstarter; I had to shut down Coven Club; we lost our publishing deal. We still lose business deals, even today, because of those tweets.
Over the next year, as we dealt with the fallout and more rumours came to light, I began to realise something. The attack on my fiancé had been deliberately public, but I had privately been a target too. As a young(ish!) up and coming woman in the industry with prominent feminist initiatives, I wasn’t a credible target for public movements like #metoo which gave those tweets about my partner such resonance. So the attacks on me were subtler.
Here’s a sample, from the several hundreds of messages I’ve received over the past ten months. They appear regularly and consistently across a range of sites on social media. Some are from anonymous or encrypted accounts. Others were written, said or done privately by the same people who publicly attacked my fiancé.
- People emailed conferences where I was speaking to pressure organisers to disinvite me. Some organisers gave in and cancelled my slots with unlikely excuses like late-stage budget cuts. Others didn’t, but I still don’t have a clear picture of how many conferences over my six-year career received requests to cancel my invitations.
- I’d been volunteering at a feminist games fund for some months. People began spreading ‘nebulous rumours’ about me, which culminated in people saying ‘they wouldn’t apply while I was part of the team’. The fund looked into the rumours and came up empty, with what they apologetically described as ‘just this sense that you’re kind of a bad person’. My choice became to dig my heels in and damage a cause I cared about, or to step away. I chose the latter.
- People said my feminist initiatives were a deliberate front to give my partner an air of respectability, or that no other feminist initiatives ‘would have me’.
- People tried to undermine my credibility by simply calling me names. ‘Grima Wormtongue over here,’ read one tweet from a prominent indie games journalist with over 100,000 followers, who followed up over the next few months with several other unpleasant comments which have all since been deleted. ‘Ah, I see AK has sent his woman shield,’ read another, from a newly set-up and since deleted Twitter account called ‘@abuseindustry’. One person just called me ‘a racist’, for reasons I still don’t understand.
- People sent me private messages telling me I’m a bad feminist. I made it ‘hard to be here for you’ because I’d had the temerity to say that call-out culture is bad. ‘Seriously?’ read one private message from another prominent journalist with nearly 200,000 followers. I didn’t respond, so she later tweeted publicly about how I used ‘the language of feminism to pathologise women and queers’. There were many follow-up comments from many different people expressing similar sentiments.
- People sent me private messages telling me I’m really bad at my job. ‘The only things you’ve made clear are that you don’t have the constitution to do your job, and that you’re committed to circling the drain’, said one.
- People sent me threatening emails, talking about having ‘someone to point a gun at our face’ and ‘dead wives’ and that another public attack was imminent: ‘surely you didn’t think it a one-time engagement?’. One email just ended with: ‘Pervert.’
- People accused my mother of abuse when she tweeted to argue in our defence. In a since deleted post, one person wrote a hit piece about her and my father in the style of Gossip Girl. Another wrote on Reddit: ‘The whole time her mother has been cyberbullying all these people on Twitter. Did Lottie help organize this? Is this all how Lottie feels, too?’
- People left bad reviews on our game’s Steam page, saying my studio mistreats employees. ‘If you stand against work-space exploitation, please don’t buy this game,’ reads one from just a few weeks ago.
- Cultist Simulator was shortlisted for a number of BAFTA Games awards, the highest award in British games. One person who’d go on to spearhead the nastiness sat on one of the juries. I’ve sat on BAFTA Games juries myself, so I know you have to sign a written contract and confirm verbally on the day that you have no partiality for or against anyone you’re judging.
I am a non-confrontational person who, with the exception of being successful and dating my fiancé, has never inspired the vitriol of the internet before. If the above could happen overnight to me, without me doing anything differently one day to the next, it could happen to anyone.
I want to make two points that I haven’t seen elsewhere. Firstly, that you can be someone who isn’t powerful, who isn’t a man, and who isn’t even actually accused of anything – and if someone has it in for you enough, you can still wake up one morning to a new reality of sustained, inventive online harassment and bullying. This applies to game developers, it applies to children, it applies to anyone with a social media account. My experience put me in trauma therapy, and it certainly freaked my therapist out: she relies on good reviews for clients, which could easily be destroyed by even one or two people deciding they want to hurt her.
Secondly, nobody over the past year fitted the usual profile of a ‘troll’. Harassment on the internet is closely associated with MS Paint-avatar accounts that tell women they’re ugly and that people should kill themselves. I didn’t get any of that. Almost all the nastiness I’ve experienced has been from actual people: people who play my game, people I worked with, people I met at a conference years ago, people I follow(ed) on Twitter.
We are all, every day, offered opportunities to join a public dunking we know nothing about, or say something mean about a celebrity we know we’ll never meet. But I can tell you first hand that the person at the centre will notice what you say. They might not see your particular comments, but you contribute to a tapestry of hate that makes the subject of it think that everyone – everyone – has decided they are the worst thing that has ever crawled across the face of the earth. If there are any exacerbating circumstances in their life – mental health, financial concerns, professional ramifications, lost friendships – those non-troll-y comments can and will make people want to die.
There are only a few people who actually want to hurt me. Most of the people involved were just joining in on Twitter, or expressing an opinion that got them upvotes, or engaging with the particular topic of the day. But these sorts of interactions on social media point the infinite hate machine of the internet at someone forever. You cannot control what the hate machine does. Whether you think someone’s done something bad, whether you know someone’s done something bad, whether you heard a rumour or got a weird vibe from someone or just have some personal beef: nobody deserves large-scale, endless, uncontrollable harassment online.
I am not the first and I will not be the last person who’s attacked, privately or publicly, from behind a screen. Cybersmile have a lot of resources on the various types of online harassment you might encounter, and I’m writing up a list of my own resources and advice from a year of dealing with this new world. But the bottom line is this: this behaviour is not normal. No one acts this way in real life apart from school bullies and stalkers. Don’t let a screen dissolve your empathy for another human being. Online harassment is humans, at scale, at their most vicious. Please don’t ever join in.