This is what online harassment looks like

Obscene images, hate sites and a game where people are invited to beat you up have been inflicted on Anita Sarkeesian.

When I first wrote about the sexist abuse of women online, collating the experiences of nearly a dozen writers, the response was largely positive. Many hadn't been aware there was a problem; they were shocked. Others had assumed that they were the only ones whose every word on the web was greeted with a torrent of abusive, threatening comments.

But a few reactions stood out, among them that of Brendan O'Neill, the Telegraph blogs section's resident contrarian. He wrote that feminist campaigners pointing this out was a "hilarious echo of the 19th-century notion that women need protecting from vulgar and foul speech". We were, he said, "a tiny number of peculiarly sensitive female bloggers" trying to close down freedom of speech.

The best response to that argument, incidentally, comes from Ally Fogg, who wrote recently:

What you fail to understand is that the use of hate speech, threats and bullying to terrify and intimidate people into silence or away from certain topics is a far bigger threat to free speech than any legal sanction.

Imagine this is not the internet but a public square. One woman stands on a soapbox and expresses an idea. She is instantly surrounded by an army of 5,000 angry people yelling the worst kind of abuse at her in an attempt to shut her up. Yes, there's a free speech issue there. But not the one you think.

I couldn't have put it better myself. As the months have gone on, and more "trolls" (or "online bullies", if you're a semantic stickler) have been exposed, the perception that what we're talking about when we talk about online harrassment is "a few mean comments" or an insult or two has grown.

On 12 June, I wrote about American blogger Anita Sarkeesian, who launched a Kickstarter programme to raise $6,000 to research "tropes vs women in videogames". Donating was - and I really can't stress this enough - completely voluntary. There are Kickstarters for all kinds of things: for example,  a "dance narrative featuring some of NYC's most compelling performers that celebrates the pursuit of love and the joys of imperfection" doesn't sound like my kind of thing, but God Bless Them, they are 89% funded towards their $12,000 goal. 

But a big swath of the internet wasn't prepared to live and let live in Sarkeesian's case, and began spamming her YouTube video comments with a pot-pourri of misogynist, racist and generally vile abuse. Each one individually was grim; together they constituted harassment. (You can read the full story in my blog here).

Since then, Anita Sarkeesian has been subjected to a good deal more harassment. Let's run through the list for anyone who still thinks this issue is about a few mean words.

Image-based harassment


This is the kind of stuff people have been sending to Sarkeesian's inbox, repeatedly, and posting on the internet in an attempt to game her Google Image search results. There have also been drawings of her in sexually degrading situations:

Both these sets of images are taken from Sarkeesian's blog post documenting the harassment (and are reproduced with her permission). They have been posted on the web generally, and also sent specifically to her Facebook page, Twitter account and YouTube channel. The second set show, in her words:

The first image depicts a woman drawn to resemble me who is tied up with a wii controller shoved in her mouth while being raped by Mario from behind. The second image is another drawing (clearly sketched to resemble me) featuring a chained nude figure on her knees with 5 penises ejaculating on her face with the words “fuck toy” written on her torso.

Hate sites

These take a couple of forms: either the creation of specific sites dedicated to trashing you (and again, to come up in Google searches of your name) or posting your details on established forums where haters like to hang out. In Sarkeesian's case, that has involved posting her phone number and address. It's hard to see that as anything other than an attempt to intimidate her: "We know where you live".

The interactive "Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian" game

This one is so incredible I had trouble believing it existed. 

It's an interactive game, inviting players to "beat up Anita Sarkeesian".

As you click the screen, bruises and welts appear on her face.

I find this fairly disturbing - the idea that somewhere out there is a man - a 25-year-old from Sault Ste Marie, a city in Ontario, Canada, who was offended enough by Sarkeesian's Kickstarter project that he made this.

In the description accompanying the games, he adds:

Anita Sarkeesian has not only scammed thousands of people out of over $160,000, but also uses the excuse that she is a woman to get away with whatever she damn well pleases. Any form of constructive criticism, even from fellow women, is either ignored or labelled to be sexist against her.

She claims to want gender equality in video games, but in reality, she just wants to use the fact that she was born with a vagina to get free money and sympathy from everyone who crosses her path.

Some of the commenters on the game have expressed disgust, but not all of them. One wrote:

You are so right, sir. It's the execution which lets this game down.

Wikipedia Vandalism

I wrote about this in the initial post, so I'll be brief here: Sarkeesian's Wikipedia page was repeatedly hacked with crude messages and porn images, until it was locked. This went hand in hand with...


Hacking is gaining entrance to someone's private data or website, while DDOSing - using "denial of service" attacks - involves sending a website's server so many requests to load the page that it crashes.

That's what happened to Sarkeesian's site as her story got shared around the world. This image was posted as a way of bragging about taking it down:


Personal Life

Sarkeesian is rare in sharing so much of the harassment that she has been subjected to -- and it's a brave choice for her to make. Every time I write about this subject, I get a few emails from women who've been through the same thing (and I'm sure there are men, too). They tell me much the same story: this happened to them, but they don't want to talk publicly about it, because they don't want to goad the bullies further. 

If you were Anita Sarkeesian, how would you feel right now? She's somebody with a big online presence through her website, YouTube channel and social media use. All of that has been targeted by people who - and I can't say this enough - didn't like her asking for money to make feminist videos. 

I think Sarkeesian has been incredibly courageous in sharing what's happened to her. Those obscene pictures are intended to shame her, to reduce her to her genitals, and to intimidate her. 

I'm sure there's plenty here which breaks the law - both in the UK and the US. But the solution here probably isn't a legal one: it's for everyone involved to have some basic human decency. This isn't just a few rude words, and it isn't OK. 

An online game invites players to "beat up Anita Sarkeesian".

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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Spinning around: what our political fables reveal about us

Do the stories we tell ourselves need to be true?

How should we make sense of politics in an age of uncertainty? In times of doubt and turmoil, we reach for familiar narratives that shape the mess of current affairs into a coherent form. And the messier the present gets, the simpler we need the stories we tell ourselves to be.

“Once upon a time, a child was born into wealth and wanted for nothing, but he was possessed by bottomless, endless, grating, grasping wanting.” So begins the author Rebecca Solnit’s recent psychological study of Donald Trump – a sinister fairy tale in which the president of the United States is envisaged as a child emperor, cosseted in a palace of mirrors  which are there only to indulge his self-regard.

Writing the appalling rise of Trump as a cautionary tale for children was a stroke of brilliance. It makes the inexplicable explicable: Solnit is knowingly playing on the unsettling sense that something has gone terribly wrong in the grand narrative of modern history – how can this man be president? But it also offers a measure of hope to the reader. We know how such fairy tales end: no one, least of all those in power, will escape being held to account by those below them.

If US politics currently looks like something out of a Brothers Grimm story, post-election Britain resembles Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The New Yorker’s satirical article “The Book of Jeremy Corbyn” recently styled the Labour leader as a sandal-wearing prophet of the people, emerging from the desert to challenge Theresa May’s avaricious “High Priestess”. The right-wing media is implicated: “And the chief scribes wrote upon tablets, saying, Jeremy is false of tongue. He hideth wickedness in his heart. And his sums do not add up . . . And nobody paid any attention.”

These fables, by reaching for the fictional, often cut straight to the truth. They have the ring of psychological accuracy to them. In our “post-truth” world of “alternative facts”, in which the weirdness of current events seems to outstrip even the imaginative capacities of political satire, this kind of storytelling seems to be a particularly fitting medium in which to tell the truth.

How often have you looked at the news during the past few weeks and months and thought, “You couldn’t make it up”? Why not, then, make it up? Why no reach for myths, fairy tales, or archetypes to make sense of reality?

Yet invented stories can distract us from the truth. We call political storytelling “spin” for good reason: we know that there are media moguls and spin doctors out there, behind the scenes, weaving a narrative that distracts us from what is really going on. And the stories that politicians choose to present us with are revealing. You can learn a great deal about a person from their favourite story.

The Conservative Party’s favourite allegory is the assassination of Caesar, which has been used at least since the ousting of Margaret Thatcher to interpret every instance of strife within the party’s upper echelons. When asked for comment on the resignations of Theresa May’s advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, for instance, Jacob Rees-Mogg reportedly quipped, “When Caesar is under attack, the Praetorian guard must sacrifice themselves.”

Rees-Mogg’s spiritual classmate in Latin grammar, Boris Johnson, made a similar analogy following Michael Gove’s leadership bid after the EU referendum, alluding to a speech by Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as he announced his decision to bow out of the leadership race.

This is very telling. It suggests that the Conservative Party has, of late, been focused on its own internecine disputes at the expense of the national interest. While the country is left in disarray – the result of two Conservative prime ministers calling for a national vote in failed attempts to shore up their own power – Tory politicians are busy reaching for grand Shakespearean comparisons for themselves and wondering who is going to stab whom in the back.

You may notice that they play all the main characters in their allegory and that we plebs don’t feature very much in this classical storytelling. In addition, no one seems to have realised that the events of the Ides of March make for a terrible contemporary analogy, because the death of Caesar led to civil war.

Meanwhile, the Brexit negotiations are due to begin this week. May’s language of “hard Brexit” has become increasingly confrontational, to the point that it seems as if she genuinely conceives of Britain’s relationship with the EU as a kind of diplomatic war. Indeed, war stories are frequently reached for by Brexiteers, who describe the referendum as a Battle of Britain-esque stand against Europe (forgetting the Polish, Czech, Irish, French and Belgian squadrons that fought alongside British pilots).

But we are not at war over Brexit, and it damages the political debate to use a poor reading of Second World War history as a way of conceiving of our position in Europe. Narratives are reassuring, but there is a fine line between fiction and fantasy. Telling a story is, in a way, an exercise in power, because the storyteller chooses which parts can be left out of view.

We need to question the stories we are given and why we are being given them. And we need to ask whether the stories we tell ourselves are true. 

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