One of the weirdest and most disturbing moments of Gamergate — the point where a "former future marine" named Jace Connors apparently crashed his car in an attempt to locate developer Brianna Wu — is looking like a hoax. So instead of a schizophrenic gamer threatening people online, it's actually a sociopathic comedian.
Connors, also known as parkourdude91, has been a fixture of internet mockery since 2012, an over-the-top Internet Tough Guy who referenced having schizophrenia. Roughly a month ago, he posted a furious video initiating "Operation Wupocalypse," a nebulous character assassination (and possibly literal assassination) plan that involved sending a friend to Canada to steal data from Tumblr's servers. Most of Connors' plans, including an attempt to locate Tupac in Palestine, were self-evidently ridiculous, and there was widespread speculation he was a troll. But he had a long-running ironic fan base, which generally described him as a delusional but genuine YouTube personality.
"They realized I was making fun of them with those videos."
And his devotion to bizarre conspiracy theories didn't negate his apparent violent obsession. His behavior was over the top, but so were Elliot Rodger's videos and manifesto, in which he adopted the posture of a B-movie villain and proposed putting all women in concentration camps. Rodger would end up killing six people.
Last week, Wu announced that she was pulling her booth off the PAX East floor because of safety concerns, citing threats that included Connors' videos and one from a compatriot. Yesterday, though, BuzzFeed's Joe Bernstein reported that Connors and his friends are actually characters created by Jan Rankowski and Sam Hyde, a pair of comedians affiliated with sketch group Million Dollar Extreme. Rankowski says that he ad-libbed the "Wupocalypse" video after getting into a real car crash, satirizing the idea of an impotently violent man who'd confused gaming with reality.
Bernstein's piece came after forum members had started to suss out Rankowski's real identity, and "Connors" has since posted a farewell. (There's been speculation about whether he's actually yet another person trolling both sides.) "They realized I was making fun of them with those videos," he said. "I started it as a joke, but it's become far too real, and I wish I could take it all back." Based on BuzzFeed's reporting, though, it didn't become "far too real" when Rankowski sent "fake" threats to a real person. No, it was when he started to worry about his safety.
"People have been calling my old high school, calling my work ... and saying these nasty things about me. I was made to sign a contract at my job saying I wouldn't make any of these videos again. I received a letter in the mail with a picture of me from my high school yearbook... It said I shouldn't have fucked with 8chan."
Hyde has less explicit stories about harassment, including "some kid ... outside my window throwing pebbles" and "someone knocked on my [apartment] door ... and then there was no one there." Rankowski comes closest to an apology. "I didn't take this situation seriously, but I see what it means now to be in the other person's shoes. What [Brianna Wu's] life must feel like."
"There was never any point at which he dropped the mask."
This hasn't exactly put his targets at ease. "This has had an extreme level of emotional stress for me, my husband, and my team," says Wu in an interview with The Verge. "That's not a joke. That is destroying my ability to do my job." Among other things, the videos advance Gamergate's longtime accusations that women fake online harassment. Even meant as a joke, Wu says Connors' repeated, menacing tweets and videos were a nasty addition to an already large pile of threats. Paging through his videos, she found one "a little staged," she says. "But I have to take this stuff seriously. ... There was never any point at which he dropped the mask." At one point, Wu posted a picture of a restraining order from a Massachusetts court, with (ultimately false) contact information she'd gleaned from Gamergate supporters. "The police tried to serve this person. They were unable to locate them, which is why we ultimately chose to just blot out that information and tweet it out," she says.
"My first reaction was, I don't know what it changes," she says of Bernstein's story. "I fully expected when we went to court with this person that this is exactly what they would say — it was a joke, it's not serious, they didn't mean it." While Connors wasn't the only reason she scaled back her PAX presence, "if I had known this three weeks ago, it's possible we would have made a different decision," she says. "I think it's really sad that we lost that promotional opportunity."
"Now I find out it's just a game for this person, that's worse."
Million Dollar Extreme has a history of covert satire. In 2013, Hyde tricked TedX into giving him space for an absurdist talk on the "2070 paradigm shift," which Wu loved. "But there is a really big difference in satirizing the bombast of a TED talk and making a woman and her developer team think they're going to be murdered," she says. Jace Connors' stint in Gamergate is less like the surreal fakery of @horse_ebooks and more like the time a group of marketers threatened to post nude pictures of Emma Watson as a "stunt."
Poe's Law dictates that without a wink and nod, there's no way to create a parody of extremism that someone won't mistake for the real thing. That once meant that trolls were fooled into thinking they had goaded a man further and further into paranoid schizophrenia. Now, it means people can dismiss victims of harassment for not understanding the nuanced satire of violent threats. A six-month campaign against "social justice warriors" who have alternately infiltrated video games, universities, and (to at least a few people) DARPA is already surreal enough without comedy.
If anything, learning Connors isn't for real has only solidified Wu's plans to press charges for online threats. "My initial reaction with this was this is someone who is mentally ill," she says. "Now I find out it's just a game for this person, that's worse."