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2 Sep, 2019 21:19

Game creator’s suicide after feminist Zoe Quinn accuses him of abuse shows peril of Twitter trials

Game creator’s suicide after feminist Zoe Quinn accuses him of abuse shows peril of Twitter trials

The unraveling of Alec Holowka’s life in the days after facing unproven accusations should remind us why, at some point, civilized society turned away from mob rule and embraced due process.

Not only is your social media feed becoming a live broadcast of an execution of the lost and the vulnerable, but the people handed the axe and hood may be no saner than the ones they are beheading.

Let’s leave for the moment –and we will return here– whether the claims against Holowka are likely to be true, any other circumstantial evidence, or the credibility of his accuser Zoe Quinn, one of the most high-profile activists on the internet.

Instead, let’s chart the fatal sequence that perfectly shows how NOT to handle any sexual abuse allegations, including entirely plausible ones.

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From cult hero to dead in five days

August 26: Zoe Quinn, the feminist game developer whose conduct had sparked Gamergate, the five-year ideological war between online communities, accuses Holowka, the indie co-author of cult hit Night in the Woods, of mistreatment, via a lengthy Twitter post.

Quinn somewhat insidiously blurs the line between routine poor relationship behavior and bona fide criminal acts, between literal descriptions and metaphors. Although Quinn has since deleted her post and her entire Twitter account, the full text has been preserved.

The gist is that Quinn, already “vulnerable” after another assault in Toronto, was bought a one-way ticket to Winnipeg after “flirting” with Holowka, and began a relationship with him.

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In the month that she stayed, he had “physically confined” her to his apartment, “slowly isolated” her from other people in her life, and “degraded” her while they were alone, while “acting normal” in public.

Holowka would “throw things” and “jam his fingers inside me and walk me around the house by them when I told him it hurt” as well as telling her that the earlier assault was her own fault during “mean and violent” sex.

After her friend paid for a flight back to Toronto, she broke up with Holowka by email, at which point he “lashed out” and complained to other developers in the community that she was a “b***h,” thus “ruining” her career in the Canadian games industry.


Now, if Quinn feels that she was the victim of sexual assault or other forms of abuse recognized under existing law, she would have done well to go to the police. She alleged in her posts that other people had confirmed her stories (“That’s Alec, what can you do,” she was apparently told) so surely within the current climate and with her prominence she and other victims would have been listened to.

For someone whose stock-in-trade is the claim of misogyny, and who has graphically detailed other similar instances from her life, it is somewhat unfortunate that Quinn was apparently too “scared” in this particular case to even mention it for “the best part of a decade” since it allegedly occurred.

If, however, Quinn thinks this was insufficient to go to the cops about, what purpose does her airing on Twitter of these vague grievances serve?

Quinn has received tens of thousands of retweets and likes, and positive media coverage, but, she has headlined entire conferences on cyber bullying and complained of dozens of death threats - she would have known that those voices would be turned against the accused. In fact, she mentions that Holowka had already said he’d kill himself over her behavior during their relationship and that “Alec is likely not well and I always believe in rehabilitation over punishment.” Does disgracing a troubled person in front of millions constitute “rehabilitation over punishment”? Was Twitter ten years after the fact the most productive way?

August 28: The colleagues with whom Holowka developed his last hit game “cut ties” with him and cancel his current project after some “agonizing consideration.”

A lengthy Reddit post from his Night in the Woods coworkers emphasizes that the team is “heartbroken” but sheds little specific light. “Enough of the allegations are extremely plausible,” writes Scott Benson, adding that “the things that Alec did during the bad times were worse than we knew.”

“We aren't trying to prove a point or appease a mob or show we're great,” he reassures, adding that he is “depressed.”

Thus, we are none the wiser as to whether they have verified the accusations. Nor if they are aware if their actions will contribute to him being viewed as guilty.

But they have washed their hands of him.

August 31: Alec Holowka commits suicide.

“Alec was a victim of abuse and he also spent a lifetime battling mood and personality disorders,” writes his sister Eileen Mary, but “became a new person… working towards rehabilitation and a better life.”

In her words, Alec “wished the best for Zoe.”

A call for sanity

Surely this sequence of events represents a collective disaster – although no one intended it to happen like this, at every step social and ethical norms were violated. There are some lessons here – basics that need to be relearned for a new technological and political age.

Do not spread life-destroying stories of past relationships to strangers just because social media exists. Any glorified gossip that you disseminate will go far beyond your shared circle, and that will be your fault. Unless you are actually looking to destroy lives.

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Do not make judgments about people you don’t know on the basis of one-sided stories you read on the internet. Do not accept something as complete truth due to an accuser's gender alone, or any other inherited characteristic that does not guarantee trustworthiness.

Do not ignore due process – an accusation is not enough. Fairness is paramount, particularly when lifelong reputations are at stake. It’s no longer just about dropping a difficult friend when the world is watching.

Do not use unwilling individuals as pawns for your ideological games. Those on your side are not always perfect, those you oppose are not inhuman. All are capable of sustaining trauma from the thousands of anonymous pinpricks they receive.

Zoe Quinn named herself after Harley Quinn

This is where it comes back to Zoe Quinn. She did not kill Alec Holowka. But she owes her entire present-day career to riding the wave of social media and political activism that has no respect for the above principles.

Dozens of independent accounts exist of her questionable behavior. From reportedly fabricating sexual assaults, claiming that she had once been assaulted and stabbed the attacker to death, to systematic emotional abuse, detailed by her former boyfriend Eron Gjoni, to accepting $85,000 in funding money for a game that she has not begun to produce, to being a keen member of a message board that specialized on online harassment.

A picture emerges of someone manipulative, ruthless, vindictive, self-serving, and unreliable. Of course, the accusations against her come with the very same caveats as the ones she herself makes, but the point is that her own reputation and credibility are no better than those of her accusers.

The call is not for her to be victimized – there is enough suffering here already, but for her to be treated as a real human being, with some worthy opinions, and some obvious personal flaws.

Holowka was obviously no saint, but neither is Quinn.

Yet, because she is a woman and holds ultra-progressive political beliefs, Quinn is given a protective aura – there are literally sites on the internet that go through every one of the claims about any negative parts of her behavior. She has never been written up in a mainstream media profile as anything but a hero.

Meanwhile, Quinn wields social media as her sword. Collective shaming, timely accusations, jumping on right-on causes (in 2017 Quinn declared that she is to be referred to as “they”), demonization of her adversaries and ceaseless attention-seeking. Main thing, always stay relevant, capture the zeitgeist.

Quinn has not taken any responsibility for what has happened – not even a word of sympathy or regret towards Holowka, or how the story has played out. But soon she will emerge again, and none of this will be her fault, and she will be declared by all to be the real victim here. And the cycle will continue.

By Igor Ogorodnev

Igor Ogorodnev is a Russian-British journalist, who has worked at RT since 2007 as a correspondent, editor and writer.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.