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
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A To-Do List for the next Labour leader

Whoever wins in September faces an uphill task. IpsosMori's Gideon Skinner lays it out. 

While all the media attention is focused on the prospect of a victory for Jeremy Corbyn on September 12, it shouldn’t be forgotten that whoever takes up the leadership mantle, there’s an uphill battle ahead to turn around the party’s fortunes in time for 2020.

Ipsos MORI recently spoke to a panel of former Labour voters in Nuneaton and Croydon Central for BBC Newsnight. These are both the kind of seats that the party really must take back if it is to stand a chance of electoral success in 2020 – and so we asked them what they want from the next Labour leader. 

Here’s the big themes that came during our discussions with Labour’s lost voters:

1.Style matters

Ed Miliband may have tried to reframe the debate around his personal leadership qualities by explicitly admitting that "If you want the politician from central casting, it's not me, it's the other guy. If you want a politician who thinks that a good photo is the most important thing, then don't vote for me." But style and personal image still matter[1], and to win back former voters the next leader needs to recognise that coming across well is an important part of the job. That Ed Miliband couldn’t connect with people was highlighted as a real problem; for most people, the television is the only way in which they have contact with politicians so their media appearances need to count. 

2.But so does talking about the issues that bother people

Immigration reached a record high in our regular Issues Index this month, with half (50 per cent) of the public listing it as one of the most important issues facing the country.  Concern about immigration is real (especially in many marginals - UKIP increased its share of the vote by 14.4 per cent in Nuneaton and 7.1 per cent in Croydon), and is seen as being at the root of many social issues affecting people. People want their concern to be acknowledged (and more than just slogans on mugs) and an action plan set out.

“They need to focus on the things that matter and immigration is a big one with a knock-on effect on housing, education, the NHS….it’s a real big one for them to tackle”

3.Big ideas and ideological commitments mean little if they don’t resonate

You want to renationalise the railways? Scrap Trident? Introduce universal free childcare? Fine – but these aren’t necessarily the policies that are going to win back Labour’s lost voters. After years of being told that there is no money left in the country’s coffers, any big policy statement is met with two immediate questions; 1) how much is this going to cost and 2) where is the money going to come from? Without answering both of these points, any policy is quickly discredited.   While participants valued backbenchers with strong principles and ideologies who can hold the executive to account, they judge potential Prime Ministers differently. 

“If Labour got back in they would just spend, spend, spend again and we would be paying that money back for years- and we already are but it would be far worse under a Labour government”

What’s more, these aren’t the issues that matter to people. Over and above immigration they want to know what the next Labour leader plans to do to help people like them – how they will be helped onto the housing ladder, how they can be sure their children will be sent to a good school in their local catchment area, and how the NHS will be reformed so they can get a GPs appointment when it suits them.

“We want to hear them give a sermon on housing for our young people, the NHS, education, terrorism – stuff about nuclear isn’t in the here and now, it isn’t on our doorstep”.

4.But being passionate about what you believe in gets you a long way

Despite that, just as much as what is being said, it matters how it is being said. Passion and conviction is taken as shorthand to mean politicians will do what they say and can be trusted. Tony Blair was highlighted as a good example here; participants stated that even though you might not like what he did, he spoke from the heart and followed through on his beliefs (Nigel Farage is another who gets this “everyman” image right). Furthermore, conviction can only come if politicians have empathy with the people they’re representing and understand the trials they face – something not thought to be possible for those who have led a life of privilege. As one participant said: “If they lived our lives, normal job, normal schooling, you could see it….they’re not real though. If they lived for two or three months on the money we had to live on they might understand”.

“A leader should be someone that is representative of more of the people of the country, not just the top 2 per cent of the country – just ordinary”

5.So does saying sorry

While participants understood that the financial crisis of 2008 was about more than just Labour spending, they still feel that their policies had a part to play in the resultant austerity that followed. Indeed, they’re considered culpable enough to warrant giving an apology some seven years later – particularly those contenders for the leadership who were key figures in the last Labour government. Because of this, participants felt more disposed to those candidates who acknowledged that Labour had made financial mistakes and learnt the lessons – particularly as they assumed that deficit reduction would have to continue and were keen to hear how the next Labour leader would go about this.

6.Identify a point of difference

With all parties eager to speak up for hardworking people, what sets the Labour party apart? Participants weren’t able to think of much – and without this difference, there’s nothing to for them to rally behind and, what’s more, it encouraged a sense that all politicians are the same. With this in mind, few felt inclined to engage with what is on offer, and what the actual choice is.

7.And unite the party behind you

Regardless of who the next Labour leader is, one thing is for sure; without a united party behind them, they simply won’t be seen as a credible leader. Participants expressed distaste for the ‘constant bickering’ that was thought to characterise UK politics – they certainly did not want to see party in-fighting on top of this. As one participant put it: “as a party, they need to be united…if you’re party aren’t behind you, why should we?”

********

An impossible wish-list that no one could ever meet? Well, while the next Labour leader will certainly face an uphill struggle to win back voters who have lost confidence, the Conservative government was not talked about in glowing terms either – rather, they were routinely described as being ‘the best of a bad bunch’.

“We need to be given a credible alternative to be able to vote for Labour, someone with clear direct policies that are believable and that we understand….clear messages that enable us to vote for them”.

Nevertheless, while there still may not be lots of affection for the Conservatives, the onus will be on the next Labour leader to win back lost voters, whoever he or she is.  As participants bluntly acknowledged “they’ve lost our confidence” – something they traced back to 2008 and the financial crisis. And, in the absence of a credible Labour leader who can revitalise the party and engage with the voters on the issues of importance to them, then sticking with what they know will be the preferred option.  As one participant said:

“I’ve got a mortgage and two young kids and I feel secure right now…if Labour come in would they rock the boat?”

  • Ipsos MORI conducted two discussion groups on behalf of BBC Newsnight. One was conducted in Nuneaton on Thursday 20th August and the other in Croydon on Wednesday 26th August. Participants were all former Labour voters, who had voted for a different party (either the Conservatives, UKIP or the Liberal Democrats) in 2015. All were aged between 30 – 50 and were social grade C1C2.  Each discussion lasted around 90 minutes and was structured by a discussion guide. The full focus group will be broadcast on Newsnight tonight on BBC Two at 10:30pm.
 

[1] See for example Milazzo, C. and Mattes, K. Pretty faces, marginal races. Predicting Election Outcomes using Trait Assessments of British Parliamentary Candidate. This paper is also covered in Cowley, P. and Ford, R. (2014) Sex, Lies and the Ballot box – 50 things you need to know about British General Elections.

Gideon Skinner is Head of Political Research at IpsosMori. He tweets as @GideonSkinner.