Dear The Internet, This Is Why You Can't Have Anything Nice

Anita Sarkeesian's project to expose stereotypes in video games attracts a maelstrom of hate.

Something wonderful happened on the internet this week. And something horrible happened at the same time.

A Californian blogger, Anita Sarkeesian, launched a Kickstarter project to make a web video series about "tropes vs women in videogames". Following on from her similar series on films, it aimed to look at women as background decoration, Damsels in Distress, the Sexy Sidekick and so on. Her pitch is here:

 

 

Sarkeesian was after $6,000 to cover the cost of researching the topic, playing all kinds of awful games, and producing the videos. Seems reasonable, doesn't it? Even if you don't like the idea - or don't believe that women are poorly represented in games (in which case, you would be wrong) - then isn't it fine for other people to give money to something they believe in?

Except some kind of Bastard Klaxon went off somewhere in the dank, moist depths of the internet. An angry misogynist Bat Signal, if you will. (It looks like those charming chaps at 4Chan might have had something to do it.)

In Sarkeesian's own words:

The intimidation and harassment effort has included a torrent of misogyny and hate speech on my YouTube video, repeated vandalizing of the Wikipedia page about me, organized efforts to flag my YouTube videos as "terrorism", as well as many threatening messages sent through Twitter, Facebook, Kickstarter, email and my own website.  These messages and comments have included everything from the typical sandwich and kitchen "jokes" to threats of violence, death, sexual assault and rape.  All that plus an organized attempt to report this project to Kickstarter and get it banned or defunded.

Let's take a look at that Wikipedia page, shall we?

As the pixellated pinkness might suggest, that's what tabloids call a "sex act" happening in the top corner. There are also references to Sarkeesian being "of Jewish descent", an "entitled nigger" and having a "masters degree in Whining" (because why stick to one prejudice, when you can have them all?) More than a dozen IP addresses contributed to this vandalism before the page was locked.

Meanwhile, her YouTube video attracted more than 5,000 comments, the majority of them of a, shall we say, unsupportive nature. The c-word got a lot of exercise, as did comments about her personal appearance, and a liberal sprinkling of threats of violence. 

Sarkeesian archived a picture of the abuse, and you can find it here. I'm sorry to subject you to it, but I think it's important that you see the kind of stuff you can get called for the crime of Being A Woman On The Internet. Shall we play sexism bingo? Here goes:

Tits or GTFO

You're a bolshevik feminist Jewess

LESBIANS: THE GAME is all this bitch wants

Why do you put on make-up, if everything is sexism? ... You are a hypocrite fucking slut.

Would be better if she filmed this in the kitchen.

I'll donate $50 if you make me a sandwich

... and so it goes on. The only light relief is this one, because I don't think this is quite the threat this chap thinks it is:

Sarkeesian decided to leave the comments on her video, as proof that such sexism exists. I think it's important that she did, because too often the response to stories like this, "Come on, it can't be that bad". There are two reasons for this: first, that if you don't experience this kind of abuse, it's difficult to believe it exists (particularly if you're a man and this just isn't part of your daily experience). Secondly, because news reports don't print the bad words. We've got into a weird situation where you have to get a TV channel controller to sign off a comedian using the word "cunt" after 9pm, but on the internet, people spray it round like confetti. We read almost-daily reports of "trolls" being cautioned or even jailed, but often have no idea what they've said. 

This story should be shared for several reasons. The first is that a horrible thing happened to Anita Sarkeesian. She did nothing to deserve the torrent of abuse, and the concerted attempts to wreck her online presence. It's not the first time this happened: Bioware's Jennifer Hepler was similarly hounded out of town for expressing some fairly innocuous statements about videogames. Every time this happens, more women get the message: speak up, and we will come for you. We'll try to ruin your life, tear you apart, for having an opinion.

The second reason this story deserves wider attention is that in Britain, a law is being debated which will encourage service providers to identify internet trolls, without their victims having to resort to costly legal action. Until now, the perception has been that you can say anything you like on the internet, without any consequences. Recent cases, such as that of Liam Stacey (jailed for mocking footballer Fabrice Muamba) show that is getting less and less true.

A man who targeted Louise Mensch was yesterday given a suspended sentence, and banned from contacting a list of celebrities. Few papers reported Frank Zimmerman's full remarks, with the notable exception of The Guardian: they included a reference to the film Sophie's Choice, in which a mother is forced to choose which of her children dies, and the following: "We are Anonymous and we do not like rude cunts like you and your nouveau riche husband Peter Mensch...  So get off Twitter. We see you are still on Twitter. We have sent a camera crew to photograph you and your kids and we will post it over the net including Twitter, cuntface. You now have Sophie's Choice: which kid is to go. One will. Count on it cunt. Have a nice day."

We can argue all day about the sentence handed to Liam Stacey, but Frank Zimmerman made an unequivocal threat. He no more deserves anonymity than those who targeted Anita Sarkeesian with rape and death threats. But, of course, they will never be found out.

I said at the top of this blog post that something wonderful happened on the internet this week, at the same time as something awful. You'll be pleased to know that Anita Sarkeesian's Kickstarter project has gained 2,301 backers and a total of $55,671 at the time of writing. It's more than enough for her to make a whole series of shows about tropes and women in games, and luckily, she still plans to do so despite all the abuse

I am certainly not the first woman to suffer this kind of harassment and sadly, I won’t be the last. But I’d just like to reiterate that this is not a trivial issue. It can not and should not be brushed off by saying, “oh well that’s YouTube for you“, “trolls will be trolls” or “it’s to be expected on the internet”. These are serious threats of violence, harassment and slander across many online platforms meant to intimidate and silence. And its not okay. Again, don't worry, this harassment will never stop me from making my videos! Thank you for all your support!

Anita Sarkeesian in her Kickstarter video.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty
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How Labour's power-brokers will divide up the party's safe seats

Labour's biggest trade unions will divide up Labour's vacant seats between them. Here's how it's going. 

The snap election has both of the big two parties scrambling to fill their seats as quickly as possible. The Liberal Democrats have an edge in this department in that they selected in anticipation of an early election last June, and with a few exceptions, that slate of candidates will go forward into the election.

For the Conservatives, shortlisting is done by Conservative Campaign Headquarters, who present three names to the local association, who then pick the candidate.

For Labour, the short time frame means that anyone selected in 2015, whether successful or unsuccessful, will be selected again automatically. Where seats fall vacant, either because the candidate or MP is old, unable to run for personal reasons or simply doesn’t fancy it, that will be decided by the nine officers of the NEC.

Those nine officers are: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, his deputy Tom Watson, plus Jim Kennedy of Unite, Andy Kerr of the Communication Workers’ Union, Keith Birch of Unison, and Cath Speight of the GMB, with Ann Black, an ever-present on the party’s NEC since 1998, representing the membership. Unite’s assistant general secretary, Diana Holland, boosts the Unite contingent though she sits there not as a Unite representative but as the party’s treasurer. In the chair is Glenis Willmott, the leader of the party in Europe, but effectively an extra vote for the GMB.

As far as the Corbynite and Corbynsceptic factions of the parliamentary Labour party are concerned, the NEC officers are finely balanced, though Wilmott’s casting vote will generally go for the Corbynsceptics.

But the relationships that matter are between people who won’t even be in the room: the political directors of Unite, the GMB, Unison and the CWU, the biggest of Labour’s unions.

That just 12 of the seats are considered “safe” means the focus will be on them, though the NEC will still have to vote on the large number of vacant seats where the defeated parliamentary candidate is not standing again.

In practice, that Dave Ward, the general secretary of the CWU is currently unwell and that his political team is considered to be “green” in the words of one senior trade union official means that the CWU will likely do the worst out of the major trade unions. The big winners will be the Unite and the GMB, who will parcel up the juiciest morsels between them, though Unison have vowed to be “more assertive” this time around. But for the most part, selections will operate on a you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours approach.

Although some seats are considered “done deals” – Stephanie Peacock, regional political officer at the GMB, is likely to be selected in Barnsley, Mark Ferguson, campaigns officer at Unison, is considered a shoe-in for Blaydon, while Ellie Reeves, sister of Rachel Reeves and wife of John Cryer, the chair of the parliamentary Labour party, and the favoured choice of the GMB, will likely be selected in Lewisham West and Penge  – others are more fraught.

Unison feel they were short-changed by the selection processes last time – the polls meant that deals they struck rebounded badly as few of their people were selected for safe seats but were instead in marginal that were expected to fall easily to Labour – and are being more aggressive, according to officials from other trade unions.

There is currently confusion about what will happen in Liverpool Walton. Steve Rotheram has vowed to remain in place unless his successor is from the party’s left flank. That no guarantee has been forthcoming means that as things stand, he will combine the role of mayor for the combined authority with that of being MP for Walton, though the likelihood is that a deal will be struck allowing him to stand down. Dan Carden, an aide to Len McCluskey, who in a quirk of fate ran unsuccessfully against Peacock to be youth representative on Labour’s national executive committee, is considered the likely beneficiary.

The GMB had been assured that Jo Platt, both theirs and Andy Burnham’s favoured candidate in Leigh, would be given a free run by the other trade unions. But in practice, as one well-connected official puts it “We made that deal because no-one was going to beat Jo among members. Now it’s between NEC officers, it’s a very different game.” Others observe that Burnham, by not striking a hard bargain like Rotheram, had traded away his ability to influence who succeeds him "for nothing". 

There is also a nervousness around two notional “safe” seats in the south of England: Oxford East and Slough. Though both have decent majorities, many believe that they are highly personalised, particularly Andrew Smith’s in Oxford East, so no side wants to trade away something for one of these seats.

What does that mean for the struggle for control after the election? Should Corbyn defy the polls and win a majority, the selections in marginal seats are more heavily Corbynite, as many – but not all – of the candidates electing not to run again are Corbynsceptics who don’t believe they will be successful. They will, in the main, be replaced by true believers. If the polls are borne out but there are any freak gains – possible depending on how the Liberal Democrats do in some marginal – they will increase the strength of the leadership in the parliamentary Labour party.

There’s a well-established meme that Corbynite MPs have larger majorities than the rest of the parliamentary Labour party. This is because MPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 did have larger majorities than the average Labour MP – but only if you include MPs who nominated him to “broaden the debate”. When you factor out MPs like Margaret Beckett and Rushanara Ali,  Corbynsceptic MPs with super-majorities, the Corbynite average falls back in line with the rest of the parliamentary Labour party.

Simply put: there is no way for the left to get sufficient nominations to put a candidate of their own on the ballot without the support of MPs from the centre-left, no matter how bruising the defeat. Corbynite MPs are fairly accurate soil sample of the parliamentary Labour party in terms of majority size, demographic make-up of their electorates, and so on.  But as the parliamentary Labour party shrinks, the importance of one or two MPs becomes more pivotal.  

So although the Corbynite left may be a little stronger in the next parliament than the last, as things stand, any Corbynite wanting a place on the next ballot paper will be still be reliant on the kindness of strangers.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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