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How the UN Screwed Up Its Cyberviolence Report

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Billed as a “world-wide wakeup call,” the UN’s “Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls” report was quickly pulled down, after criticism about its sourcing and conclusions. It does the impossible: Gamergaters and Zoe Quinn think it sucks. What went wrong? The problem started with bad sourcing.

Many of the ideas the UN Broadband Commission’s report put forth were noble: Promote digital inclusion for women, provide digital literacy training, push digital entrepreneurship for women.


And then, the report addresses online harassment by linking what it called “cyber VAWG” (VAWG= violence against women and girls) to violent video games. To do so, it cites a discredited 2000 report on the Columbine shooters called “Programmed to Kill” to make a general statement on how video games warp young minds. From page 48:

Recent research on how violent video games are turning children, mostly boys, into ‘killing zombies’ are also a part of mainstreaming violence.


“Programmed to Kill” also refers to Pokémon as a “killing game designed for toddlers beginning at 2 and 3 years old.” Dungeons and Dragons becomes “satanic” and Risk II—yes, Risk II, the online version of one of the most boring board games ever inflected upon mankind and this blogger!—is a “ruthless quest for world domination.”

As the Entertainment Software Association pointed out, the UN also cited another discredited report, “The Mark of the Beast: America’s Children Are in Mortal Danger.”

If the UN used Tipper Gore’s counselor-prescribed fear journal as its primary source for information, it wouldn’t be much more hyperbolic.

In addition to relying on “Programmed to Kill” to link real-world violence to video games, the UN report cited Wikipedia, the UN itself, or left footnotes blank. As Motherboard pointed out, one of the footnotes cited the author’s hard drive. It was the sort of sourcing that’d get you an F in a remedial bibliography seminar—obviously sloppy, and easy to catch.


This is what you see if you try to access the report now:


So what’s the fix? Motherboard talked to Sarah Parkes, the media and public information chief at United Nations International Telecommunication Union. While she apologized for the errors, she emphasized that the major problem was the citations of sources:

“Really, the big problem was footnoting which was not up to standard and we very much regret that,” said Parkes. “That is being revised very thoroughly. We are adamant that we will have these [footnotes] all corrected.”


Parkes called the error-riddled report “a product of the terrible scramble around the launch date.”

A revised report is expected within two weeks, Parkes said. (Which...sounds like yet another scramble to me.) But some critics would like to see a revamping that goes beyond just fixing sources.


“Our hope is that the new UN report will be factually based and provide an accurate view of video games and gamers,” ESA Vice President of Media Relations Dan Hewitt told Gizmodo.

Online harassment is a serious problem, so it sucks that a report that could’ve started conversations is now more of an embarrassing footnote on how not to do footnotes.


Update: Parkes got back to Gizmodo for more details about the problems with the report. Sounds like more than just footnotes will be taken into consideration, which is good news:

We expect the Executive Summary to go back up tomorrow, and the full report I hope in a couple of weeks. The main problem - as many pointed out - was the state of the footnoting, and for this we apologise. We relied a little too heavily on the author/s to get these right, they were not sufficiently scrutinised by the editorial team (UNDP/UN Women/ITU), and for this we of course take responsibility. We are now overhauling them thoroughly and are determined that they will be 100% correct before we re-post. As regards other changes, we HAVE taken onboard the considerable amount of constructive feedback we have received, particularly from academia colleagues who have been supportive of the report but who have also pointed us to research regarding the link (or lack of) between violence in games and real-world physical violence. While there is still an issue of sufficient longitudinal reach, we did think this was an important research dimension to add to the report. Elsewhere, text is being tightened up a little to bring the language a little more in-line with standard UN-speak (which can mean, a little more bland). Overall, despite the noisy reaction from some quarters we have also had a lot of praise for having had the courage to tackle an issue a great many people acknowledge to be a growing worry - and we are proud of that.


[Ars Technica | Motherboard]

Screenshots via UN