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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Q&A: Why the UN’s Julian Assange ruling is meaningless

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has no legal force in the UK.

Why is Julian Assange even in the Ecuadorean embassy?

In June 2012, the Wikileaks founder fled bail, walked into the embassy, and applied for political asylum to the Ecuadorean government. And he’s stayed there ever since.

Assange was on bail because the UK was trying to extradite him to Sweden, where authorities want to question him in relation to an allegation of rape. Investigations into two counts of sexual molestation and one count of unlawful coercion were dropped in August 2015 after they reached their statute of limitations – that is, the window for the Swedish authorities to bring the case expired. The statute of limitations for the rape investigation expires in 2020.

A European Arrest Warrant is in force for Assange, so the UK has an obligation to extradite him to Sweden. Which, if he had set foot outside the Ecuadorean embassy since 2012, is what the government would have done.

The UK cannot enter the embassy to arrest Assange under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

What is the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention?

First, let's be clear about what the Working Group is not. It is not a court. It has no legal jurisdiction in the UK.

It is exactly what it says it is: a working group. If that’s too opaque, think of it as a bit like a think tank. A think tank set up by the UN that only considers alleged cases of arbitrary detention.

The panel has five members, all academic lawyers. One of them, Leigh Toomey, recused herself from this case because, like Assange, she is an Australian citizen. The four remaining lawyers who decided this case (all men) are from South Korea, Ukraine, Benin and Mexico.

The group reports to, and is mandated by, the United Nations Human Rights Council, which counts members from notable human rights-respecting countries China, Qatar and Russia among its governing Commission. And in September last year the UNHRC attracted criticism for appointing Faisal bin Hassan Trad, an official from Saudi Arabia, to chair an influential panel of independent experts. Yes, the same Saudi Arabia that sentenced the free speech blogger Raif Badawi to be flogged. 

It’s probably also worth noting that between 2009 and 2014 the Working Group ruled in favour of the detainee in all but four of the 1,325 claims it heard.

What did the Working Group say?

That Assange had been subjected to more than one “deprivation of liberty”: not only his present confinement in the Ecuadorean embassy, but also when he was initially detained in Wandsworth prison and was subsequently under house arrest in the early stages of his legal battle against extradition.

The opinion also argued that Assange’s detention was “arbitrary” because he had been held in isolation at Wandsworth, and because of “the lack of diligence by the Swedish prosecutor in its investigations”.

The panel concluded that Assange’s apparent detention "should be brought to an end, that his physical integrity and freedom of movement be respected", and that he “should be afforded the right to compensation”.

Was this a unanimous ruling?

No. The Ukranian panellist, Vladimir Tochilovsky, disagreed. He pointed out that “fugitives are often self-confined within the places where they evade arrest and detention”, and argued that this case lies outside the mandate of the Working Group.

What happens now?

Nothing. The government still stands ready to arrest and extradite Assange if he leaves the embassy, although the continuous police guard outside the building ended in October.

A government spokesperson today rejected the idea that Assange has ever been arbitrarily detained, and said instead that he is “voluntarily avoiding lawful arrest by choosing to remain in the Ecuadorean embassy”.

Has this got anything to do with Wikileaks?

No. It’s about a man fleeing questioning on suspicion of rape.