"Jace Connors," the man who made several bizarre and threatening videos about game developer Brianna Wu, has revealed to BuzzFeed news that he's actually Jan Rankowski, the member of a "provocative," as BuzzFeed puts it, cult comedy group. And he says — wait for it — that he's now being harassed by Gamergate and fears for his safety.
The theory that Connors was a hoax started gaining serious traction over the weekend on a message board called Kiwi Farms (you can read some of that here, if you really want to go deep on this thing). BuzzFeed's Joseph Bernstein tracked down Rankowski and found that he's a 20-year-old who lives in Maine and is affiliated with Million Dollar Extreme, which Bernstein describes as a "provocative cult comedy group based in Rhode Island."
Provocative indeed: in the service of comedy, Rankowski has spent the past two years playing a gun-and-knife-loving, mentally ill video game fan, sometimes using his unsuspecting mother to play the character of ... his mother. He was egged on by a man named Sam Hyde, the comedian who created Million Dollar Extreme. Bernstein reports that Hyde told Rankowski he was going a little too far after the terrifying video in which he claimed to have crashed his car on his way to Brianna Wu's house to confront her.
Rankowski told Bernstein that once Gamergaters started to suspect he was making fun of them and didn't in fact share their sincere zeal for terrorizing women—despite the videos he made doing just that—they started doxxing and harassing him:
"People have been calling my old high school calling my work," Rankowski told BuzzFeed News, "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 told BuzzFeed News that over the past two days he has also been harassed. "Some kid stood outside my window throwing pebbles. And someone knocked on my door — it's a closed apartment, you shouldn't be able to get in. And then there was no one there."
Yes. Very sad. Ironic, too, if you're into that sort of thing!
The question of whether "Connors" was for real even divided the Gamergaters; last month, I had an interesting Twitter conversation with Kingofpol, a Gamergate supporter who hosts a popular podcast. Pol had "Connors" on the program, and afterwards he seemed unsure just what the deal was there. He told me Connors had "obvious mental issues" or else was "a complete troll."
Rankowski told Bernstein the whole thing has given him a new appreciation for people who fear for their safety, now that his own safety is threatened. "This has ruined my life," he told the reporter, adding, "I didn't take this situation seriously, but I see what it means now to be in the other person's shoes. What her life must feel like. I have this newfound respect for the people who are having to deal with GamerGate, Brianna Wu and Anita [Sarkeesian]."
Rankowski's Twitter account, ParkourDude91, has been suspended. Yesterday, he uploaded this video to his YouTube page:
In a comment, he added, "The experiment was a resounding success. We will collect the necessary data from this last livestream, and then we'll consider the exercise closed."
Wu isn't laughing.
"If you look at the history of people who do actually get prosecuted for threatening women," she told Jezebel by phone this morning, "invariably when it goes to court they say, 'Hey, hey this was just a joke." She points to the case of Peter Nunn, a British Twitter troll who went to prison this year for threatening a female MP with funny jokes like, ""If you can't threaten to rape a celebrity, what is the point in having them?"
"My goal from the beginning has been to introduce consequences into this equation," Wu says. "In Grand Theft Auto, I can blow up helicopters and police cars and nothing happens. In the same way, gamers think they can threaten to murder women and nothing will happen."
When Wu originally began trying to find "Connors" and pursue criminal charges against him, "I felt guilty," she says. "It was clear from the videos that this was someone suffering from mental illness. I thought they needed professional help more than prison. Now finding out this is joke by this person that redoubles my effort to put him in jail."
In the end, despite whatever Rankowski's true intentions were, "This is has caused me immense psychological distress," she says. "I've talked to the police on multiple occasions. I've lost sleep over this. It has made me in fear for my life. If you come to my home we have padlocks installed on our attic and basement because every time we get home we check to see if anyone has broken in."
It's also had an economic impact: "We didn't pull out of Pax East just because of him, but it was cetainy a factor," she says. "We were lined up to show our game in front of a ton of press and we had to pull out."
Wu was previously a fan of Sam Hyde, particularly his Paradigm Shift 20/20, a ridiculous send-up of a TED talk that uses every possible cliché about a professional business talk.
"It's genius," Wu says. "The difference there is you can tell it's a joke. The problem with Gamergate is you can't satirize these people. I can't stress this enough: the wider point here is the gamification of the harassment of women."
It's already hard enough to get law enforcement to take threats against women online seriously. Wu worries that Rankowski's hilarious joke will give police yet another excuse not to investigate violent threats online.
"It's going to be tremendously damaging," she says. And so, she says, "If this person thinks they can throw up their hands and say, 'Woah, woah this is just a joke, people, I'm sorry,' this isn't Grand Theft Auto. You can't threaten to murder people and think there are no consequences and you can take it back. My suggestion to him is to lawyer up."
Image via Parkourdude91/YouTube