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 Images
Show Hide image

How the Conservatives woke up to the importance of the World Service

After risking its existence, George Osborne has woken up to the importance of the World Service. 

In a change to his usual programming, the George Osborne used the spending review to announce additional funding for the BBC World Service. This would have come as a surprise to anybody paying attention to the BBC, which has spent the last five years weathering the storms of austerity. First the license fee was frozen. Then the government announced that it would no longer be subsidising elderly fee payers or the World Service. Since then, dark clouds have hung over New Broadcasting House, where the newly integrated newsrooms failed to escape from the sinking feeling now familiar to almost every public service in Britain.

With approximately 2,000 journalists, the BBC is still the largest news broadcaster on earth. It is also one of the most highly regarded, and it's hard to find anybody in the business of world news who can name an organisation of the BBC's size with anything even approaching such high standards of trust and impartiality.

The BBC will now receive £34 million over the next two years. It will then be rewarded with £85 million a year to "build the global reach of the World Service." The money will also be spent on digital services and television. So why the sudden change of heart, and why now?

The funding was first announced on Monday, on the 49th page of the government's Strategic Defence Review. Evidently, this U-turn is less about providing a service than it is about projecting a message. Naturally, the headlines focused on the new fighter jets, drones and soldiers. Anybody who kept an eye on the Bush administration will know that security spending reviews in the wake of terrorist attacks are where right-wing notions of smaller government go to die. But buried behind all that was a section on soft power, the politics of global influence.

While remaining a dominant figure in international journalism, the BBC has been challenged in recent years by a new generation of ambitious outsiders broadcasting across the globe in multiple languages. These include Qatari broadcaster Al-Jazeera, who recently established a 24-hour news channel for American viewers and the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, currently investing in African influence. Alongside them is Russia Today, which specialises in giving a voice to critics of western foreign and economic policy, commissioning shows hosted by George Galloway and Julian Assange. Last year the Russian government launched Sputnik, an international radio service broadcasting 800 hours of Kremlin-approved news in 30 languages every day. While BBC News editors were adjusting to a state of managed decline, these competitors have been finding new audiences, on radio, on television, and online, and on behalf of their anti-democratic proprietors.

Meanwhile, a more insidious rival has emerged. Isis now publish high-quality videos of their appalling crimes on a regular basis. A recent interview with a former Isis cameraman published by The Independent revealed that Isis media teams spend hours recording multiple takes, in high definition, of the group’s various atrocities before delivering their gruesome files to an edit suite outside of Aleppo. It’s a world away from Bin Laden and his grainy Arabic monologues, recorded onto VHS.

Isis have also spent the last year and a half using the shock value of their imagery to pollute social media with their vile ideology while simultaneously encouraging ostracised young Muslims to commit acts of terror in the West. They even publish a regular English language magazine, downloadable as a PDF file anywhere in the world, rebranding war criminals as well mannered public servants. Dabiq Magazine, named after the Syrian site of an ancient Islamic prophecy, was recently used to conduct a glossy interview with Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the wretched ringleader of the massacres in Paris.

As it stands, radicals travelling to fight in Syria now outnumber new Muslim army recruits across Europe, and Putin has more control of the international news agenda than ever before. What's missing is a confident liberal perspective, free from direct government interference.

Back in July, during slightly happier geopolitical times, the Chancellor told Andrew Marr he was worried about BBC becoming "imperial in its ambitions", in relation to online journalism. It's possible that the Conservatives’ long-standing suspicion of the corporation has prevented them from appreciating the corporation's diplomatic potential. But if Broadcasting House can enhance its impression abroad, their relationship with the government could improve just in time to rescue one of our greatest cultural exports. In the wake of Putin's new narrative in Syria and the attacks in Paris, it appears that the international ambitions of the BBC and those of our aspiring Chancellor might not be so different.