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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Sarah Sands's diary: switching from print to radio and being banged out

The new editor of Radio 4's Today programme on taking over the role.

This week, I bid farewell to ­newspapers. I am leaving the editorship of the ­London Evening Standard to ­someone who can solve newspaper finances and am going to join BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. The tradition of being banged out is shared by journalists and prisoners; indeed, some journalists have crossed categories. It is a joyously unruly sound, an expression of what I have loved in newspapers.

The resistance to regulation is instinctive in the newspaper tribe. Yet some newspaper journalists are now calling for regulation of the internet. This is marvellous cant, at which newspapers excel. We have watched with pure envy both the freedom and the money move from print to social media.

It is tiring fighting for survival but, once more, print must find a way to reinvent its purpose. We have become timid even of describing ourselves as the press. I sat through a “tomorrow industry” session at which we were advised to categorise ourselves as a data company rather than a newspaper. In the spirit of mockery, a photograph flashed up on the screen of an old Standard newspaper bill. It read: “Man in space”. I was suffused with love for it, but then I have witnessed the internet revolution and remember when the front page of the Standard was unchallenged and the cries of the vendors floated across London’s evening air: “Read all about it! West End final! Headless corpse in theatreland! Read all about it!” What newspapers still have is a bunch of clever, fun people who can put together a first draft of history that is passably correct. That is something.

Chaos theory

When I rejoined the Evening Standard eight years ago, it was in crisis. I didn’t realise it then – or why would I have come back? – but the newspaper was losing nearly £30m a year and it had somehow lost the goodwill of its readership. Under the new ownership of Evgeny Lebedev and the editorship of Geordie Greig, we made it friendlier and we made it free. We became troupers, unsure whether we would still be in work by the end of the week but determined to put on a good show until then.

That mindset is what got us through the choppy years. We integrated with the Independent, then dis-integrated. We increased our circulation from 200,000 to 900,000. We realised that being small, agile, innovative, hard-working and optimistic was a winning formula. Uncertainty can be the making of you. Brexit will take place in a similar time frame, and I fervently hope that creative chaos can work as well for the country as it did for the Standard.

Name the game

One issue I never resolved at the news­paper was the consistent use in print of first or second names. In a spirit of feminism, I asked our production team to explain why women were usually captioned with their first name while men generally went by their last name. It is not so simple. Calling an actress or model – both hog the picture slots in newspapers – by their second name can seem like a rebuke. “Delevingne parties all night” seems stuffy.

The London mayors Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan are largely on first-name terms in the newspaper headlines, partly for instant identification and partly because of their celebrity. I tried to inject distance by changing both to second names whenever I could. The claim made by the production chief was that first names are usually shorter, so easier for headlines. I never tested this scientifically, but it is not the case with our Prime Minister, nor with the new Met commissioner, though her surname brings its own sensitivities.

Voices in your head

I am asked what the difference is between print and radio. The Today programme seems to me to be the nearest thing to a newspaper: high impact but eclectic. But there are clearly different skills, which will take time to learn. One example is the broadcast convention of the production team talking into the earpiece of a presenter. On a newspaper, the editor will brief an interviewer and occasionally do a joint interview if it’s a swanky subject. But you would not crash into a room in which an interview was taking place, as if you were the detective inspector from Line of Duty. And in the interests of balance, shouldn’t interviewees be allowed earpieces, too? The whole process reminds me what a tightrope live interviewing is and how much pressure is on the presenters. Don’t they do a grand job?

Natural hazards

The BBC has been described as something between church and Post Office, and it takes time to fathom its structure and ethos. I find it helpful to remember that Today comes under the news department but sits within BBC Radio 4. Its apparently illogical positioning is crucial to its character. It is news, but with a hinterland. It is woven into people’s lives and the relationship is conversational rather than just informational.

This relationship can be dangerous. But I took my life in my hands to have lunch with Charles Moore, my old friend and boss. I was deputy editor at the Daily Telegraph when he was editor, and his ability to scent bias at the BBC has not worn off in the intervening years. I told him triumphantly that I’d thought of a way round this: I intended to introduce more items about nature and the countryside, which are reconciling rather than divisive. Birds, for instance.

Charles’s eyes narrowed. What about the anti-shooting lobby? Fish, then! Ah, that can be an attack on land ownership. Trees aren’t much easier: the arguments about bio-security and borders make the immigration debate seem civil. Remember the cause that did for the talented former editor of Today Rod Liddle? It was the Countryside Alliance, championed, of course, by Charles Moore. There’s no safe hiding place for us at Today.

Sarah Sands is a former editor of the London Evening Standard and the new editor of “Today” on BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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