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/DDOSing

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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The DM slide: an investigation

What is it? Why does it cause such trouble? And how can you be better at it?

“What is a DM slide?”

The minute I proposed this piece I spotted a problem. “I’m going to do a piece on ‘the DM slide’”, I’d say. “Partially because it’s socially interesting and could tell us a lot about how we talk online. Partially” – I’d laugh – “because I want to figure out how to improve the quality of my inbox.”

Not only did most people not find me funny, but a fair percentage – from colleagues in their twenties to friends in their forties; almost everyone, in fact, who didn’t spend a good proportion of their job on Twitter – had no idea what I was talking about.

The thing is, I don’t really have an easy answer to “what is a DM slide?” Sure, I can tell you about direct messaging on Twitter, and how its introduction changed the app from one which focused on broadcasting your thoughts in public to one which also allowed a back channel of communication, used for bitching, whining, discreet professional conversations and, yes, flirting.

I can tell you about the ways men use this channel to try to talk to me: the prominent editor who persists in sending messages way past any hope of response, or the artist who writes to me only, I suspect, when his girlfriend (or is she his wife?) is away. I could tell you about the discomfort, the boredom, the eye-rolling. I could tell you about the laughter with my female colleagues, because yes, we compare notes.

I guess, for fairness, I could also tell you about the genuine friendships I have struck up over DM, or the way the phrase “DM slide” has become a meme which nods as much to the existence of a shared internet community as it does to the fraught codes that are part of navigating it.

I’ll save you that, for now.

Here’s the short answer: the DM slide is when someone, usually a man, sends you a message – “slides into your DMs” – in a way which, depending on who you ask, is either suave or just trying to be.

But it’s also much, much more than that.

The beginning

To get to the bottom of what might constitute a “DM slide” rather than just “a person talking to someone in a normal way online”, I did what generations of journalists before me have done and asked someone else. A lot of people, in fact.

What I wanted to find out was whether there were “rules” through which people, specifically women – because, as I intimated above, the whole exercise was really about me – recognised certain messages as flirtatious or even creepy, while others seemed innocent. I was also keen to find out how introducing direct messages might have changed the way interactions happened on Twitter. Was there a difference between how people spoke publicly and privately?

Unsurprisingly, the answer was yes. When I asked women how they felt when a man sent something privately that could have been sent in public, several admitted it made them immediately suspicious. “Why aren’t you doing this on public Twitter?”, one said, adding that “the fact you’re not means it’s probably creepy”. This is something I’ve felt myself, particularly when it comes to replying to pieces I’ve written: if there’s nothing obviously confidential in the content of the message, why does it need to be sent “out of earshot” of our followers?

Ambiguity also made certain messages uncomfortable for women:

It makes me uncomfortable when the purpose isn't clear - I don't use Twitter to chat to strangers, just to tweet them publicly or to DM chat with people I already know. If there's a reason they want to talk, that’s much better.

I would be uncomfortable with any unwanted attention, photos or comments. To that end I am always careful that banter doesn't slide into anything which can be construed as flirting.

You generally can get an idea of what they're like from their Twitter feed in general - if  we have nothing in common, have never interacted before, and they're not really saying anything of substance, it's definitely the creepy kind

What was most interesting, however, was when women talked about how they’d learned to make allowances for interactions which initially might have been unwelcome.

Men are direct in their approach to things in general and not big on subtlety. It's worth being aware that it's just who they are. Be direct.

One colleague also noted how the possible ambiguity about what a welcome and unwelcome interaction might be could make it hard for men who do want to chat to women online:

I do feel a littttle bad for men - we don't mean "never chat us up on street/never DM us/etc", but it's hard to explain what makes it okay or not okay. 

Girl's talk

So what does make it okay? And why might men and women have different ideas about what “okay” is?

Deborah Tannen is a professor at Georgetown University whose body of research has done much to advance our understanding of linguistics and gender. She observes how the medium through which someone sends a message online is its own “metamessage”: a part of the communication which gives the receiver information about how the written content should be taken. (It's a little like body language.)

Tannen tells me that young people are particularly fluent in this language of mediums, to an extent that might come as a surprise. “I hear from my students all the time: if someone sends a message on Facebook that shouldn’t have been sent on Facebook, it’s a big deal.”

“The existence of direct message immediately transforms the platform of Twitter”, she tells me. By introducing a new medium with its own signals and connotations, the app has changed how messages are sent and interpreted. In this sense, it is part of a wider trend online: everything from comments on news articles to how we speak on social media, Tannen observes, is moving “towards personal communication”:

“All these media platforms are redefining what people are thinking of as public and private. People think young people don’t have a sense of privacy, but they do: it’s just different.”

Tannen tells me a story about a student whose mother had gone through their public Facebook profile and then mentioned something she saw on it. This felt like an invasion of privacy to the student. It sounded absurd, but I recognised the feeling: when someone I didn’t know very well makes it clear they read my “tweets and replies” on Twitter, it feels overbearing.

But all of my tweets – including my replies – are public, and anyone can read them. “Those boundaries”, Tannen says, “are becoming blurred”.

So what is the DM slide, where someone deliberately chooses a private medium on a platform that bills itself as being all about shared communication? Is there something specific being signalled when someone who has the option of speaking to you in public chooses to do so privately? “It can be a kind of flirting: now I am paying special attention to you”, Tannen suggests. “Flirting is all about special attention.”

But there’s also a broader, gendered context. Tannen’s earlier work noted how women “tend to do public speaking in a private sort of way – men conduct their private conversations in a public sort of way.” (This, incidentally, is one of the reasons she suspects Hilary Clinton’s public image rankles in some quarters: she’s “not speaking as people expect women to”.)

This dynamic extends to online spaces. Women’s online conversations which are conducted in “public” still often take on a “private” tone, and they’re generally more likely to have conversations behind closed doors -- figuratively speaking. “Some areas of the internet look like they have more men’s voices, but often women are texting or exchanging more personal messages; communicating with their friends and making private connections.”

So what does this mean when men do speak in a private space? For Tannen, one possibility is that they continue to speak as if they’re addressing a wider audience. “Men do what I call ‘report talk’ rather than ‘rapport talk’.” Even in their text messages, men are more likely to be making plans rather than just chatting.

Could it be that they’re less practiced at shifting tone to the sort of register appropriate for a private message – and less clear on when it’s appropriate to make that shift?

DM school

This leaves us with a quandary. If, as Tannen suggests, there are in fact broad differences between men and women’s online communication, then how do we detangle male entitlement from clumsiness? How can well-meaning strangers know what will be received well?

Or, to phrase it another way: what makes for a successful DM slide?

I asked the women I spoke to about this, and the answers were fairly consistent.

For a lot of people, there is a sense of rhythm to interactions online, and stepping outside the boundaries of what is “normal” – much like real life – can come across as inappropriate. A reciprocal build up of interaction was one thing that helped some people distinguish between creepy interactions and welcome ones.

Like any friendship, the normal DM interactions are built up - a fav, a reply, and eventually, “we should obviously be mates, let's chat”

Even whether you've smiled at someone or not makes all the difference IRL - it's the same online

 If there's a reason they want to talk (feedback on something, wanting to discuss a piece but not bore everyone on your TL), that's much better.

Even more encouraging were the number of people who had made friends  even met partners  on Twitter. True, a lot of the people I asked were other journalists, and freelancers in particular reported making friends with people they had initially spoken to online. But the number of people I started off chatting to on Twitter who I'd now call friends isn't insubstantial, either. I'm not the first to observe that online communities are, genuinely, communities – and as with most social spaces, the vast majority of people are keen to be friendly and decent.

For my part, I’d suggest that men who want to send a private message to a woman they don’t know very well need to acknowledge that the playing field is not level when it comes to who is allowed to speak and who feels entitled to be heard.

Empathy is a practice undervalued in most popular depictions of heterosexual relationships, and there’s no doubt that being as decent a person as possible while living in an environment of structural inequality takes work – but it might make the difference between forging genuine friendships and being marked out as creepy by half the women in your profession.  Ask yourself: does the interaction really need to be private? What about if you were the third relative stranger in her inbox that day?

Remembering that, for most women, unwanted attention is a constant background to our day-to-day lives isn’t easy, but adjusting your own behavior back a degree or two can go a long way (and rarely goes unnoticed). 

Oh: and don’t slide into my DMs.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland