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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How much of a threat is Ukip to Labour?

Paul Nuttall's party is set to beat Labour into second in the Sleaford by-election. But MPs fear far worse is to come.

A week ago, in the Richmond Park by-election, Remainers took their revenge. The Liberal Democrats overturned Zac Goldsmith's elephantine 23,015 majority by turning the contest into a referendum on Brexit (the constituency voted for Remain by 72-28). Today, in the Sleaford and North Hykeham by-election, Ukip aim to do the same - but from the reverse position. The seat, where the party finished third in 2015, was 61.5 per cent for Leave.

There is no prospect of a Ukip victory. The Conservatives currently hold a majority of 24,115 and Theresa May's "hard Brexit" stance (which prompted the resignation of the seat's MP Stephen Phillips) has attracted anti-EU voters. But Ukip, which was just 974 votes behind Labour in 2015, will likely finish second. New leader Paul Nuttall's ambition to "replace" the opposition demands no less. Just as the Tories' support for a hard Brexit insulates them from a Ukip challenge, so Labour's support for a softer version (including free movement) makes it vulnerable. The Liverpudlian Nuttall aims to win seats off the party by exploiting the divide between the party and its working class voters. Labour MPs deride Ukip's populist pretensions (noting that Nuttall once supported NHS privatisation). But they once similarly mocked the SNP as "tartan Tories".

Mindful of this, Labour MPs are taking the threat seriously. Even those with majorities traditionally weighed, rather than counted, worry Ukip could sweep them away ("there's no safe seat outside of London," one said). As I write in my column this week, Labour MPs fear Brexit could realign British politics along Remain-Leave lines. The Lib Dems will be the champions of the former, with Ukip the champions of the latter. The Tories, a Labour MP says, will stand above the fray with "the only viable prime minister". Meanwhile, the SNP will remain hegemonic in pro-Remain Scotland. "We face a tougher electoral map than at any time in our history," Jonathan Reynolds, the shadow Treasury minister, told me. Many expect Labour to finish fourth in Sleaford as Remainers defect to the Lib Dems.

To some, however, the potential for Ukip gains appears limited. The party finished second to Labour in just 44 seats in 2015. It was less than 10 points behind in only one of these and less than 20 points behind in just 14 others. But having seen their Scottish colleagues eviscerated, Labour MPs are loath to describe any swing as "impossible". Ukip could indirectly cost the party seats by attracting defectors in Tory-Labour marginals (witness Ed Balls's fate in 2015). Labour's poll ratings averaged just 29.5 per cent last month. But MPs fear this is merely "the tip of the iceberg". At this point in previous parliaments, the party's support has only ever fallen.

In response, Labour MPs are taking drastic action. "People will follow the Lib Dem playbook, treat the party as a franchise and run ultra-local campaign," says one. Leaflets will be free of references to Corbyn and national policy. “You’ve got to cut the mother ship adrift and row yourself to safety. It's every man for himself now."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.