Concluding our three part coverage of this now infamous personality in tech, we take a look at just how bad online harassment can be; especially when the proprietor cultivates a modest yet blind following. Chris Csefalvay was repeatedly attacked by Randi Harper and her followers. He spent two months battling and attempting to do all he could to overcome them. After being harassed, violently threatened, and tormented he closed his twitter account temporarily to escape. He is now slowly returning to his public research as a data scientist and intends on trying to put the past behind him. His last words on the events that took place are within this interview.
The answers are typed verbatim so please allow for some grammatical errors, as speech is different from text.
Q: Why did you start your data website and what was the purpose behind it?
*Csefalvay: *Well, it is to an extent what I do. It is what I do for a living, [the website] is also a good way for me to toy around with things that are slightly more experimental. It is something that I can’t exactly make my employers pay for but is something that is just worth checking out, so a lot of this is just investigating techniques and technologies that I find interesting and eventually some of them make it into my daily practice..and others don’t.
Q: Were the website and twitter interactions the first contact you had with Randi Harper?
*Csefalvay: *I’d come across some of her stuff. Actually when I posted my first analysis, the network analysis, it was the first one in early December she made some pretty unpleasant comments about it. As far as I can remember I did not engage in the war of words with either her or her supporters. It was actually quite embarrassing the width of people who were favoriting and re-tweeting some of those comments [ on twitter]. Embarrassing not so much for me but for those people. There was what you could call “Chinese Whispers” as they say, I’m not even sure that those are even politically correct anymore to say. The effect of people not even reading what I wrote but reading a summary of a summary of a summary and after five layers of people on twitter summarizing, especially one of these layers being Randi Harper, you end up with something that has absolutely no resemblance to what things were like. At any rate I wasn’t particularly concerned by her.
My first interaction with her was when she announced that she was about to do a publishing of extensive data set or whatever it was. It was quite strange at that point because, for one, she loved criticizing my initial analysis for a small sample size and that is actually true! It had a relatively small sample size because there are limitations to how much you can usefully work with when it comes to social network analysis. On the other hand she did repeat that claim, she did claim that all [my] analyses were based on that small subset; Which was obviously not the case. At the same time the size of the data base that she claimed for herself was actually relatively small. Giving me allowance for limitations of memory her main point was something along the lines of, she’s tracking the number of both twitter users and hashtags.
*Q: You described how this all had many layers, including what her idea of the situation was, did the response and her reactions to this surprise you?
*Csefalvay: *Well, I can honestly say [ in daily life] I haven’t been called the worst guy ever yet. I also haven’t ever been called a misogynist or sexist; probably because I am not a misogynist or sexist. Probably the easiest way to, I thought at least until now, to avoid being called a misogynist or sexist is not to be one but apparently to some people that isn’t the metric by which they go. Which is kind of sad.
*Q: How would you describe your experience with Randi Harper and her followers?
*Csefalvay: *It was…on one hand it was..extremely bizarre. It was like landing in this “Bizarro Land” of these people’s imaginations. It is as if these people live out a sort of very involved, very complex fantasy and insert real people into it. It as if they live out this fantasy of a righteous struggle between good and evil, in which they are obviously good and everybody else is obviously horrendous evil and “the worst person ever” according to Ms. Harper. They see reality through the lens of this delusion and obviously they…Well if you think that you’re in the war between good and evil it’s very easy to jump to the conclusion that against the worst people ever that no method is impermissible and no tactic is wrong. I believe it was, actually I don’t remember when it was that a certain twitter users stated that “there are no bad tactics just bad targets”. That tweet probably describes the mentality of this psychosis, this mentality of this imaginary world. In their imaginary world it is influenced by games and fiction but in the worst sort, where it is one that doesn’t have any gray just blacks and whites.
*Q: After being displayed on Randi Harper’s twitter did you receive any difference in negative attention or more specific threats?
*Csefalvay: * I actually started receiving unpleasant emails around the time I put out my first analysis which was earlier than my first interaction with Harper. They weren’t exactly great but they were in the realm of the bearable; the classic you should die or go set yourself on fire etc. , which happens to be a favorite phrase of Ms. Harper’s. Now, obviously once she got involved, that’s when it got particularly vile. That is when it got into the realm of very graphic and very shockingly violent threats. Now I must add at this point that I’ve seen my fair share of death threats before. When you grow up in eastern Europe and grow up in a very political household you end up getting bullets through the mail and if you’re doing well enough could get shot at. So you get used to these things, I don’t consider most of these things I’ve received as actual death threats.
Q: So you’re saying you’ve dealt with death threats in your home life, but the ones you received during this ordeal were different?
*Csefalvay: *What we need to be clear about here is credible death threats in my views means to a method of opportunity. A lot of these people might have the motive; very few would have probably had the means to actually get to me. Even if they had the actual opportunity to actually be able to pull it off so when some random persons tweets or emails me from the safety of his or her mother’s basement, or where ever these people live, that they are going to decapitate me and all that I am not overly perturbed. I’d say the worst that I’ve seen in and around Gamergate, and I’ve noticed this from both sides actually, is interpreting everything as a threat and almost relishing in the role of a victim. Almost being proud that someone found you worthy of threatening; that goes to a point of absurdity.
I’ve seen real death threats from people who mean it in the past. None of this, I believe, were real to that extent; however, you can’t discount them. That is one of the curses of loving another person. One of the worst things about loving another person very very deeply is that you’re no longer free to do the crazy things that you would otherwise heartily pull off on your own. While I would not have been very concerned about my own safety ,and probably would haven’t of given a crap about any of this if it had been just me, the fact that some of them began to include my wife made me very worried.
*Q: How would you characterize the behavior change from the emails you received before speaking with Harper and after?
*Csefalvay: *There were definitely less of the “I’m emotional and I’m having an outburst and I don’t know how to do it” kind of death threats and more “ I am a cold, calculated, and absolutely messed up psycho” sort of death threat. Certainly some of them were disturbing in the sense of what language was used and there was almost this gratification in the mere contemplation of violence to another person. I have a background in law, I practiced mental health and criminal. I worked quite a bit with mentally ill detainees and I was quite familiar with the difference between the mad and the bad. One of the main dividers I’ve found between those who are slightly unstable and those who are really a different dimension of evil is the orgy of violence. That complete and over the top repetition flow of violence that they describe in excruciating detail. And of course as I said, the curse of loving another person is seeing these written down about that other person.
*Q: What was your reaction when you saw these emails with threats to your wife?
*Csefalvay: *I’m a lot less willing to risk my wife’s safety than I am to risk my own. Being attacked on social media is a very strange double bind. What can you do? You can ignore it at which point you save a little bit of your sanity but it will still gnaw at you by the way…
*Q: This leads perfectly into my next question. What did you do to combat it? Did you try to avoid her and her followers?
*Csefalvay: *Her initial point was that she interpreted my statement in her usual gendered way, it was a sexist insult to her and typical of what women in tech face. Now that was obviously nowhere near what I…I actually told her that I didn’t mean any gendered insults there and apologized if she felt that way which is a sort of “non-apology” apology. I did say to her that it would really not be okay to make this a gendered issue and I didn’t mean it, and she shouldn’t have understood it that way. Now offense is taken not given, it is really in this case not my particular responsibility that she chose to interpret things through the glasses of her own prejudices by what she feels men in technology are like. I must at this point not that she on the whole did not exactly seem to have had the best experience with them. But still it was a very very strange way to take it. I was torn between two different responses, I could go away and save a bit of my time and sanity and pretend this wasn’t happening.
There are two reasons why that option isn’t as simple as it people think it is, if you’re as serious about issues of equality as I am this is a mortal insult. If this is something that matters to you, being essentially slandered [ about his stance on equality], your struck at your core. It’s not merely going “Ha-ha you’re stupid”, I’m fine with that; but they are actually imputing something to you which you’ve worked long and hard against all your life. So walking away is not that easy and walking away also makes people look guilty. That is unfortunately how social media works these days. If you go away, if you walk away just to save your sanity..
*[Interrupt] There is a saying that has been going around “I take it by your silence that I am correct”
*Csefalvay: *Yes, yes!
*Q: Harper claimed that you didn’t actually critique her code but were only attempting to attack her personally. She went on to say that when she attempted to point out the flaws in your data entry that you claimed she was harassing you. What do you have to say about that?
*Csefalvay: *Okay, let’s take these one by one. With regards to the first, she’s right, I did not go through her code line by line and say what’s wrong with it. That is because the code works! The problem is idea..the algorithm on which it’s based..is fatally flawed, based on the wrong assumptions, and at that point it doesn’t matter that the code implements a bad algorithm well. I think were she really the professional that she claims to be, she would go way beyond “ Oh my code works, all’s good”. If you put a code together to work which people are going to use you have to take a very holistic view and consider “Is this going to be something in the world that people are going to use that is going to affect lives in a very real way?”. I think it is the cornerstone of professionalism in software engineering to consider that when you put something out there it has to be also workable and based on the right ideas. You can’t put something out there that is based on the flaw presumption that anybody who follows more than two from a reasonable short list. It is a way to keep all of the most narrow minded of your friends. So considering how badly broken the main idea was, it was a bit irrelevant to go line by line through the rather simplistic code.
I don’t remember any cogent point she has made other than the sample size point. I tried to explain to her if you read every single point, every single of my post has a chapter called methodology. Every single one gives you the sample size exactly up to the number of tweets outlined. I’m very upfront about it! I was also very upfront about the time when the data was gathered which to her was very critical that the data was obtained at a particular time of the day; because it wasn’t obtained by a stream API but a search API that would not be really relevant. They wouldn’t return you to results as they came in live, it would create a theory that would be able to go back in time.
*Q: You had said earlier that you had tried everything you could to explain this to Randi Harper, how do you feel the feedback was that you were receiving in response? Did you feel it was more constructive criticism or did it feel like she was more on the attack just trying to rip into you?
*Csefalvay: *I did not see… and again I am one of those people who have had the good fortune to learn from some very nice people and some very unpleasant ones it is my view that one should be able to learn from everybody, I’m so far at a loss as to what Ms. Harper’s tweet would have taught me. I did not see much by way of constructive criticism and I’m not sure that whether you come across as a “sexist dickhead” is constructive. I don’t know what that constructs. The only thing that Ms. Harper’s tweets had constructed was wide engagement from her friends, associates, or whatever you would like to call them or her “personal army” to get a wrong reaction for her tweets.
*Q: Some refer to what you’re describing as Harper “sicing her dogs”. Would you agree with that statement?
Oh, yeah(x4) The reality is that there are always going to be people who have all kinds of pent up emotions and mainly, I must say, that’s mainly men. Albeit women are by no means immune. They have all these pent up emotions and they just want to be angry at somebody. Here shows somebody who gives you targets to be angry at and better, she hides it in this big social covering of a struggle for equality so not only do you get to essentially…you get to be angry at somebody, you get to wade all of the limits of sanity and decorum in discussing things with people, but you get a sort of absolution; a crusaders absolution of all your future sins. You get a target. It’s a one stop shop for people who are angry and want to get it out. Unfortunately most of these people by the way, don’t really care about this.
Q: Randi Harper claims she stand against harassment and that after losing her job she is making her anti-harassment activism her full time duty where she will be representing women who are harassed online. She’s also encouraged others to come to her if they are harassed and she will personally help them to deal with police and legal matters. Hearing that with your situation, how does that make you feel?
*Csefalvay: *I don’t know... I don’t know because obviously I’m a little divided here. If she is able to help just one person constructively who has been harassed get access to services that that person needs, then regardless of the fact that she has done quite a few unpleasant things some at my expense, I’m not going to judge if she suddenly is doing something good. It is a very noble goal. I think her credibility in this suffers greatly from the fact that she herself has been both a target of harassment and an instigator of harassment. You are unfortunately either are the person who harasses back or you’re not, but if you want to be the crusader against harassment you can’t…you have to be spotless I’m afraid.
Q: What she has claimed is that she “Grabs the trolls and brings them into the light”. How would you see what she is doing compared to what she stated here?
*Csefalvay: *I think it is quite problematic how she sees herself as the person who gets to decide who’s a troll that gets dragged into the light and who isn’t. I think somebody who wields an army or personal attack dog or trained velociraptors or whatever they are going to be called… Needs to show at least some smidgen of responsibility of understand the personal stories behind it and of being unbiased. Whereas I did not see any reflection of that in her. What I’ve seen is someone who is wielding rather enormous power, and again I am rather reprehensive of saying this because she might get ideas, but by harnessing the pent up rage of a lot of young people..mainly young men and giving them this monstrous job of obtaining justification and targets all in one twitter account…For somebody who wields this power I didn’t see her display the emotional cognitive maturity that you would want a person like that to weild. In an ideal world nobody would wield this sort of power. In an ideal world we would not have, nor need to have, people who “drag trolls out into the light” and if she wants to do this that is fine; but she drags those people out to be harassed not to be known, named, and shamed.
When she started up the ggautoblocker she then put it in the hands of an appeal board. When Rosario the Puerto Rico head was put on the block list by Randi’s algorithm, he eventually…she eventually said “You know, you belong on the block list because”... For the reasons that she mentioned being through who he was following and said he needed to go through the appeals procedure. Well how about you don’t create problems for other people where they have to lay themselves at the mercy of your appeals committee? Well let’s just say the appeal committee is an entirely other conversation.
*Q: Would you say the reason why you felt the need to take a step back from social media was because of what stemmed from this?
*Csefalvay: *Largely yes. Partly the fact is, I don’t have the time or the energy to deal with this all of the time. I’ve said my peace, I’ve analyzed all I could, and for whatever contribution that has been to the debate …that has been my contribution to that. I have a family, I have a job that requires me to be pretty much on the ball all the time, so a lot of responsibilities and I love every bit of it; it is great, it is just very demanding and of course there are other things in life.
Q: If somebody puts your name into google now, how do you feel about all this popping up?
*Csefalvay: *Well, I guess most of the things that people have said about me say a lot more about the people who said it rather than me. I think most of the things that people have said or repeated after one of their favorite SJW big shots, they condemn themselves more than me. I wish that I did not have to put up with this. I wish that, in a way, that none of this had ever happened. The alternative would be not saying something that’s true and not giving an honest and straight analysis of the facts. So I would say, even knowing the consequences, I would probably do no different.
Q: Is there anything you would like to say to Randi Harper and the people who supported you through this?
*Csefalvay: *I don’t think there is anything I would particularly like to say to Ms. Harper. I do hope that her endeavors to help people who are being harassed are going to bear fruit because regardless of what she has been up to in the past, helping people who are victimized is always a worthy goal. I also hope that she will contribute to the decline of harassment on twitter by stopping to do it herself.
As far as the people who have supported me? I am always quite shocked by the sheer number of people who have expressed their support and who have been very kind and very supportive. I think it’s been an almost a surreal experience really. As a minor minor Gamergate celebrity as somebody put it once, I may not align on the issue but again..thank you very much to everybody who’s been supportive . It’s been, I must say it may make me sound extremely mushy but, it wasn’t just once where [the support] brought me to tears. It happened quite a few times. Yeah, it was just such a genuine out pour of support from a lot of people whether we agreed or disagreed it was very kind of them.
I hope and encourage everybody to start resolving issues, in real life or on social media, productively. Stop branding people with the worst labels and start constructively living with each other. These people…this isn’t a holy war, this isn’t a crusade, and the “other side” whoever that is is not going to go away. You’ll have to live in the same world as these people forever, so it is probably best to work on how we can start talking to each other rather than branding each other with the newest bad words in the dictionary of interesting new words invented in failing academia.
Those are, I guess, my final words. Again everybody who’s been kind to me, whether if just kindness or reaching out, thank you very much!
I would like to thank Chris for being willing to do this interview considering the consequences he may have to endure. He is back to writing his analyses but has decided to no longer discuss Gamergate matters pertaining to his research. His personal website where you can see more of his great work is http://chrisvoncsefalvay.com/ ,where he is also actively working to produce more content. You can find the work as pictured above of his analysis here and here.