How Brianna Wu Went From Gamergate Victim To Congressional Candidate

The software engineer fought the internet's worst. Now she's ready to bring the fight to Congress.
Boston Globe via Getty Images

Last week, Brianna Wu woke up to find a rock sitting on her living room floor, surrounded by shards of glass from the window it was thrown through. Sadly, for Wu, a video game designer and Head of Development at Giant Spacekat, this is nothing new.

For almost three years, Wu has been the target of malicious abuse and harassment, predominantly online. In August 2014, Wu, along with other women in the video game industry like Anita Sarkeesian and Zoë Quinn, became a target of the Gamergate controversy, in which some of the internet’s worst trolls unintentionally exposed the misogynist underbelly of the gaming community and its hostility toward women and minorities.

Gamergate was sparked after a smear campaign, led by Quinn’s ex-boyfriend, resulted in vicious online attacks against Quinn. Wu and Sarkeesian, who were both outspoken critics of the treatment of women in video games themselves and within the gaming industry, became targets soon after.

What at first looked like disagreement about the culture of the gaming community quickly revealed itself as a thriving microcosm of misogyny and rape culture: Wu, Sarkeesian and Quinn were (and continue to be) threatened with rape and murder, stalked, doxxed, and harassed.

The women found little to no support from law enforcement. Just last month, it was discovered that, even though a handful of the men associated with Gamergate who made threats against women had admitted to doing so, the FBI took no action.

And now, almost three years later, Wu continues to be a target. Just two weeks ago, Wu revealed on Twitter that the harassment from the Gamergate community never really stopped:

Wu’s experience working in a male-dominated industry that has proven hostile to women, as well as her experience on the front lines of some of the internet’s worst trolling, have pushed her to take on a new challenge: running for Congress.

Shortly after the election of President Donald Trump, Wu made the decision to run for U.S. representative in her home state of Massachusetts in the 2018 election. Wu talked to The Huffington Post about her life post-Gamergate, why she’s running for Congress, and what the future of the Democratic Party might look like (spoiler alert: it’s female).

* * *

HuffPost: What did your career look like before Gamergate?

Brianna Wu: I’m Head of Development at Giant Spacekat and a software engineer. I started my first startup at just 19, and at 22 I could see that the percentage of women gamers was exploding in our field. So I did what the bros in our industry tell women they should do: “If you don’t like games, go make them yourself.” So I raised a bunch of capital, and hired a bunch of women and we put out games.

When Gamergate happened in August 2014, how was your life directly impacted?

Being a software engineer and leading an engineering team is a tough job to have under the best of circumstances. And for me, Gamergate really took over my life. I found myself spending [an] inordinate amount of time in meetings with law enforcement, and trying to track down the people sending me threats and kind of having this belief that if I did everything right on my end I could really change the culture. But you know how that ended. Law enforcement failed us entirely. It [made] it almost impossible to do my job. It was very psychologically damaging. To this day, when someone sends me a message saying they’re going to kill or rape me, I feel nothing. I just feel nothing. You can tell me it’s raining outside and I would have the same emotional response, just because it’s so exhausting.

What was your experience working with law enforcement?

The local beat cops that would come to my house, they were good people. But they are tasked with looking at break-ins and making sure schools are safe. They are understandably focused locally. The FBI stepped in over prosecutors here in Boston and the Department of Homeland Security and said, “We’ve got this. This is on us.” And then they chose to do nothing about it.

Everyone I talked to was very nice and very professional about it, but part of the reason I’m running for Congress is because you can do everything right. You can have thousands of stories written about you, you can have a “Law & Order” episode written about you, you can pay someone to investigate and document threats, you can get their names, you can do everything right. And law enforcement’s still not going to do anything. And I don’t know what other options we have other than getting women in Congress to change the laws.

Do you think that, since Gamergate began, things have gotten better, worse or stayed the same for women online?

I have a very clear message on this: When the FBI failed to do anything about [Gamergate], it was like the kitchen was on fire. And they ignored it. And now the entire house is on fire. The truth is, nothing was done. It’s a game for the people who do it. It’s gotten much worse.

“You can have thousands of stories written about you, you can have a “Law & Order” episode written about you, you can pay someone to investigate and document threats, you can get their names, you can do everything right. And law enforcement’s still not going to do anything. And I don’t know what other options we have other than getting women in Congress to change the laws.”

- Brianna Wu

Shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, you decided to run for office. What made you decide to run?

I’ve always intended to run for office sat some point. I’d always wanted to return to politics at some point ― my first job out of college was in politics ― but I was planning on doing this a decade or two.

After Donald Trump won, we were working on a huge expansion for my company to work on some really interesting technologies. This is very important to me. I’ve been working since 2010 for this. But I’m sitting there in a meeting with venture capitalists, after Donald Trump had won, and I can’t concentrate on a thing they’re saying. I’m sitting there asking myself, “Can I really feel good about making pleasant distractions for the next four years while the country is burning? Can I feel good about this job?” And the answer is no.

I talked to my husband and said, “If I’m not going to run for office now, when am I going to do this?” It’s scary, it’s a big sacrifice for me personally, it puts me right back into the jaws of this harassment, but it’s not in my nature to sit out a fight.

What are your priorities as a candidate?

There are two factors to this. There’s my national profile as an advocate for women’s rights and for tech issues like cybersecurity, encryption and privacy. I want to pass an omnibus privacy bill. Every single day, more and more of our data gets out there, identity theft is off the charts, our election systems are vulnerable, our infrastructure is vulnerable. We need engineers in Congress that understand those issues to make better policies.

We’re going to be hitting the issues of privacy, cybersecurity, online harassment really hard. I will fight for those things.

“We need women to run for office and to vote with our lived experience.”

- Brianna Wu

I have a higher national profile than in District 8 where I’m running. And as for District 8, we’ve got to have a message that kind of resonates with a broad spectrum of Democrats. For me, it’s those bread and butter economic issues that are where the Democratic Party needs to really focus. I personally supported Hillary in the primaries, I supported her so hard. But I think Democrats need to ask themselves, “Why was Bernie Sanders able to get so much passion?” If you’re not asking yourself that question you are not learning.

What we want to do is think very hard about income inequality, looking at breaking up large banking interests, [and] looking at single-payer health care. I think it’s so telling that we compromised with the Republicans. The ACA was originally a Republican idea. We compromised with them and they still want to kill it. So I don’t see the value [in] compromising.

You brought up Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. In your position as someone who’s entering politics outside of “the establishment,” how do you feel about the Democratic Party taking on the role of the opposition to the current administration? And what do you think the future of the party is?

I feel like both camps [Sanders supporters and Clinton supporters] have a little bit to learn.

It’s frustrating to me that Sanders supporters still don’t understand why Clinton supporters felt so talked over and mansplained to in the election. I think that’s a lesson that they haven’t learned and that they need to think about. At the same time, I think Hillary supporters ― myself included ― need to have a large talk with ourselves about speaking with more passion and honesty with our base.

There’s a moment I think about all the time from the debates between Hillary and Bernie, where Bernie’s coming out very strongly for $15 an hour minimum wage. Hillary Clinton came back and said, “It should really be $12.25.” And that’s a fine argument to have in an academic symposium, but it’s a really poor message to the populace.

The Democratic base is never going to get its fire up about coming out and voting as long as we talk [like that]. We need to speak with passion, we need real plans to help the middle and lower class in this country. We need to very directly and honestly speak about the systems that are murdering black people in our country. We have got to really look at the way women are dying because we don’t have access to reproductive health care. Until we drop this pretense and start speaking about that with honesty and emotion behind it, we will continue to lose.

Are you experiencing more harassment now that you’ve announced your candidacy?

Absolutely. It’s off the charts again. It’s not quite at peak Gamergate levels. But yeah, absolutely. The only difference is now I don’t even bother reporting it to law enforcement. I’ve completely lost trust in the system. I try not to talk about it so much. I don’t think it’s going to get us anywhere new and [this is why] we need women to run for office and to vote with our lived experience.

We need women doing that more than we need thinkpieces or stories about harassment at this point. Something I think about all the time is that four out of five people in Congress are men. What I want to see is more women standing up and running and getting our lived experience out there. Our voices aren’t heard. That’s a huge part of why I’m running.

Do you think that more women in positions of power in the government will have a tangible affect on policies?

I know it will. How can it not? Studies show that in the tech industry, once you get women in positions of power, that’s when you get parental leave policies for parents of all genders. This is where the policies start to get put into place. It’s less about political ideology and more about lived experience. It shouldn’t be a controversial statement that 51 percent of people in America are women, and we should have a great number of us represented in Congress.

“Get involved in the system because your nation needs you right now.”

- Brianna Wu

Something I take very seriously in running is [that] I’m trying very hard to keep my messaging in my campaign about not just me. No matter if I win or lose, I want more women out there to see, if you’re angry, if you’re frustrated, if you don’t feel represented, lead by just standing up and running for office. And part of what I want to do is lift up other women.

So my message to other women out there that read Huffington Post is very simple: You are more qualified than you give yourself credit for, I guarantee you. Look at Donald Trump, who’s the most unqualified person to ever reach the presidency, and ask yourself what on earth is stopping you? What is holding you back? Push past those fears. Get involved in the system because your nation needs you right now. It is all on the line in 2018 and 2020.

This Women’s History Month, remember that we have the power to make history every day. Follow along with HuffPost on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in March using #WeMakeHerstory.

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