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.

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Theresa May wants to help "just managing" families? Start with the 14p stealth tax

The rise in housing costs is the equivalent of a hike in income tax for poorer working families. 

Judging new governments‎ is hard. Without decisions taken, let alone results delivered, we are left to judge the early months of an administration by the purpose that ‎motivates it. On this measure, how does the first three months of Theresa May’s Government measure up? 
 
First and foremost of course this Government is about delivering Brexit. But, just this once, let’s leave Brexit aside – after all, that’s a choice made by the British people, not May. ‎Instead, let’s consider the second pillar of her government – an intention to focus support on "just-managing families". This is a group she has broadly described as working but not well off, with low incomes, but not the very poor who are reliant on benefits. 
 
So who are the roughly 6m low and middle income families that fit this description? Five in six of these families have at least one member in full-time work, with nearly four-fifths of those workers earning less than the typical worker’s wage of £21,000. And while they represent a third of the workforce, only a minority are in professional jobs and they are half as likely to be graduates as those on higher incomes.
 
These families are also doing the vital (and expensive) job of reproducing Britain – 40 per cent have kids. As a result tax credits do matter to this group – averaging £3,500 a year for just managing families with children.
 
If that is who "just managing" families are, how exactly are they managing in 21st century Britain? Badly is the short answer. Here are three things to keep in mind:

1. Pay

First, this part of Britain has seen no income rise in the last decade. While individual households will obviously have received some pay rises during that period, a like for like comparison of families in this group over time shows a lost decade of growth – typical incomes for the group in 2014-15 only just surpassed the level in 2004-05. Now, most of Britain hasn’t seen strong income growth over this period, but this group has been particularly badly hit by the combination of a slowdown in earnings growth in the mid-2000s, big falls in incomes following the financial crisis, and cut backs to tax credit support in recent years.
 
These changes have overcome the boost to incomes that the fast employment growth of recent years has provided, or the signature tax cuts of the last parliament. After all, for many of this group, their ability to boost their incomes is severely constrained by the fact that they only keep 27p of each additional pound earned if they pay tax and receive tax credits. 

2. Housing

Second, living standards are also about outgoings. Housing is the biggest expenditure that families face. It’s hard to overstate how damaging the impact of rising house prices, falling home ownership and thus soaring housing costs has been. 
 
These families are now spending almost a quarter of their income on housing, up from 18 per cent in 1995. To put this catastrophe in perspective, for a dual-earning, low-to-middle-income couple with children, it’s the equivalent of a 14p income tax rise. If a government openly announced a policy like that, there would be riots on the streets, but it is successive governments’ failure to see homes built that lies behind much of these families' status as "just managing".

3. Savings

Third, what do overall spending patterns by low and middle income families mean for their ability to save? This is a key determinant of a families’ sense of whether they are just managing, or making progress. On average, these families actually spend 101 per cent of their income each week, with nearly half going on the basics of housing, transport and food. The result is that most report having no savings or assets at all and two-thirds of families have savings equivalent to less than one month’s net income. This matters a lot when it comes to how families manage difficulties, be they large unexpected bills (a broken washing machine) or reduced income (less hours at work).
 
So the last few years have not been easy ones for just managing families. Squeezed incomes, soaring housing costs, and difficulty getting your head above water to put any savings aside – all are good reasons for the new Government to look very long and hard at what is going wrong in what our country offers. It is a worthy focus for the new Government. But it is not an easy one. Just as with Brexit, we’ll have to wait and see what policy substance the Government has to address these major challenges. After all, it is worth remembering that Gordon Brown entered Downing Street promising an agenda focused on Britishness and constitutional reform. A financial crisis and expenses scandal later, that agenda had fallen by the wayside.
 
But just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to try to do. Both substantively and politically, a focus on just managing families is the right response to the state of Britain today. This is not least because, in the end, Theresa May and her ministers will not only be judged by the Brexit they deliver, but the Britain they build.
 

 

Torsten Bell is director at the Resolution Foundation. Prior to that, he was director of policy for the Labour Party and worked in the Treasury, both as a special adviser and a civil servant.