ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Christopher Farnsworth is a novelist, screenwriter, and journalist. He is the author of FLASHMOB, KILLFILE, THE ETERNAL WORLD, and the President's Vampire series, as well as the comic book 24: LEGACY -- RULES OF ENGAGEMENT. His books have been translated into nine languages, published in more than a dozen countries, and optioned for film and television. His writing has also been published by the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, The Awl, and The New Republic. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughters.
This is how it started for me:
I was supposed to be writing. Working on a new book. But like a lot of writers, I was on Twitter instead. And somehow I got dragged down into the hole of GamerGate, a massive, leaderless campaign to harass and attack people using social media. It began when the ex-boyfriend of a game developer named ZoŽ Quinn released a long screed against her, and it swelled like a tumor from there. GamerGate grew to include death threats, rape threats, conspiracy theories, boycotts, and a D-List actor taking up the cause, all in the name of ethics in videogame journalism.
It seemed incredible to me at the time: people were threatening the worst kind of pain and misery against one another over video games.
I started to wonder what would happen if someone tapped into all this free-floating fury and found a way to channel it — to turn it against a target? What would happen if someone could take an online mob, and use it as a weapon?
That’s where I got the idea for Flashmob, my latest novel, which is out now from William Morrow.
In Flashmob, my character John Smith, a former CIA operative with the ability to read minds, is at a wedding that turns into a mass shooting. It turns out the gunmen were angry at the bride, a reality-TV star. It seems completely random. But it’s not.
Smith learns that someone out there has found a way to take all of our complaints, our dissatisfaction, our anger, and channel it through a Dark Net website called “Downvote.” So he decides to track this person down. And mayhem ensues.
The story is fiction, obviously. But the anger is real. Take a look through the comments section on any website. Take a look at the hostility and abuse directed at people — celebrities and civilians alike — on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or any other site. (Or, if you’re a guy, ask a woman to show you the random abuse she gets from complete strangers on her phone.)
There are many, many people who are completely comfortable writing things online that would get you arrested if you said them to someone’s face.
There are many reasons for this, some detailed in Jon Ronson’s book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, and The Dark Net by Jamie Bartlett. People online don’t see the other people out there as real human beings. There is a disinhibiting effect that comes from the anonymity of the Internet. And there’s a belief that none of it “counts” — that it’s not real, that there are no consequences or repercussions.
I don’t think that’s true.
As I watched all the sound and fury over GamerGate, I thought about the last time I’d heard this level of unhinged rhetoric, seemingly divorced from anything I recognized as reality: back when I was covering the militia movement in Idaho in the 90s. I’d regularly listen to talk radio. One local host in particular would work himself into frothing diatribes about the One World Government and black helicopters. Militia members worked on the successful campaigns of Republican politicians in the 1994 election. A militia leader told his followers to look state legislators in the face, “because some day you may have to blow it off.”
Most people thought it was just talk.
And then Timothy McVeigh parked a Ryder truck packed full of explosives in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City and killed 168 people, including 19 children in a day-care on the second floor.
The GamerGate crowd was very different from the militia movement. There were no leaders, no marches, no politics involved. It was about video games. And though people were threatened — and some even subjected to SWATting, a tactic where a SWAT team is called to their homes for a fake hostage situation or shooting — there hasn’t been a casualty due to online harassment.
Not to my knowledge anyway. Not yet.
But a man did bring an AR-15 into Comet Ping-Pong, a Washington D.C.-area pizza parlor, because he believed an online conspiracy theory that told him it was the center of a child sex-trafficking ring.
Fortunately, he didn’t shoot anyone.
But another gunman, enraged at Republicans and Donald Trump, did. He came to a practice for this year’s Congressional baseball game. He opened fire with an assault rifle, hitting four people, before he was shot himself. One of his last Facebook messages called Trump “a traitor” who has “destroyed democracy.”
The vast majority of people who say vicious things are full of shit. I write horrifically violent scenes in my novels, but I’d do almost anything to avoid hurting someone else. I like to think that we’ve all got some kind of internal braking system that recognizes the difference between words and deeds.
And yet. And yet there are those who hear these words, and they cling to them the same certainty that we would use to talk about gravity, or the color of the sky.
And for them, I worry that social media has become an echo chamber where they hear nothing but the same voices, that repeat only what they want to hear, that everything else is “Fake News!” They become convinced that something must be done.
I wrote it as fiction, but I’m afraid it’s coming true.
In one scene in the novel, Smith confronts a man who works on Downvote. He has a front-row seat for what goes on inside his head. He asks him the question: Why?
“Why make this site? Why Downvote? Why invest all the time and money and effort?”
“Because otherwise they would just get away with it,” he says, like he’s talking to a four-year-old.
“Get away with what?”
Again, he looks at me like I’m from another planet. But now there’s an added layer of contempt.
“Everything,” he says.
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