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.

Photo: Getty Images
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A To-Do List for the next Labour leader

Whoever wins in September faces an uphill task. IpsosMori's Gideon Skinner lays it out. 

While all the media attention is focused on the prospect of a victory for Jeremy Corbyn on September 12, it shouldn’t be forgotten that whoever takes up the leadership mantle, there’s an uphill battle ahead to turn around the party’s fortunes in time for 2020.

Ipsos MORI recently spoke to a panel of former Labour voters in Nuneaton and Croydon Central for BBC Newsnight. These are both the kind of seats that the party really must take back if it is to stand a chance of electoral success in 2020 – and so we asked them what they want from the next Labour leader. 

Here’s the big themes that came during our discussions with Labour’s lost voters:

1.Style matters

Ed Miliband may have tried to reframe the debate around his personal leadership qualities by explicitly admitting that "If you want the politician from central casting, it's not me, it's the other guy. If you want a politician who thinks that a good photo is the most important thing, then don't vote for me." But style and personal image still matter[1], and to win back former voters the next leader needs to recognise that coming across well is an important part of the job. That Ed Miliband couldn’t connect with people was highlighted as a real problem; for most people, the television is the only way in which they have contact with politicians so their media appearances need to count. 

2.But so does talking about the issues that bother people

Immigration reached a record high in our regular Issues Index this month, with half (50 per cent) of the public listing it as one of the most important issues facing the country.  Concern about immigration is real (especially in many marginals - UKIP increased its share of the vote by 14.4 per cent in Nuneaton and 7.1 per cent in Croydon), and is seen as being at the root of many social issues affecting people. People want their concern to be acknowledged (and more than just slogans on mugs) and an action plan set out.

“They need to focus on the things that matter and immigration is a big one with a knock-on effect on housing, education, the NHS….it’s a real big one for them to tackle”

3.Big ideas and ideological commitments mean little if they don’t resonate

You want to renationalise the railways? Scrap Trident? Introduce universal free childcare? Fine – but these aren’t necessarily the policies that are going to win back Labour’s lost voters. After years of being told that there is no money left in the country’s coffers, any big policy statement is met with two immediate questions; 1) how much is this going to cost and 2) where is the money going to come from? Without answering both of these points, any policy is quickly discredited.   While participants valued backbenchers with strong principles and ideologies who can hold the executive to account, they judge potential Prime Ministers differently. 

“If Labour got back in they would just spend, spend, spend again and we would be paying that money back for years- and we already are but it would be far worse under a Labour government”

What’s more, these aren’t the issues that matter to people. Over and above immigration they want to know what the next Labour leader plans to do to help people like them – how they will be helped onto the housing ladder, how they can be sure their children will be sent to a good school in their local catchment area, and how the NHS will be reformed so they can get a GPs appointment when it suits them.

“We want to hear them give a sermon on housing for our young people, the NHS, education, terrorism – stuff about nuclear isn’t in the here and now, it isn’t on our doorstep”.

4.But being passionate about what you believe in gets you a long way

Despite that, just as much as what is being said, it matters how it is being said. Passion and conviction is taken as shorthand to mean politicians will do what they say and can be trusted. Tony Blair was highlighted as a good example here; participants stated that even though you might not like what he did, he spoke from the heart and followed through on his beliefs (Nigel Farage is another who gets this “everyman” image right). Furthermore, conviction can only come if politicians have empathy with the people they’re representing and understand the trials they face – something not thought to be possible for those who have led a life of privilege. As one participant said: “If they lived our lives, normal job, normal schooling, you could see it….they’re not real though. If they lived for two or three months on the money we had to live on they might understand”.

“A leader should be someone that is representative of more of the people of the country, not just the top 2 per cent of the country – just ordinary”

5.So does saying sorry

While participants understood that the financial crisis of 2008 was about more than just Labour spending, they still feel that their policies had a part to play in the resultant austerity that followed. Indeed, they’re considered culpable enough to warrant giving an apology some seven years later – particularly those contenders for the leadership who were key figures in the last Labour government. Because of this, participants felt more disposed to those candidates who acknowledged that Labour had made financial mistakes and learnt the lessons – particularly as they assumed that deficit reduction would have to continue and were keen to hear how the next Labour leader would go about this.

6.Identify a point of difference

With all parties eager to speak up for hardworking people, what sets the Labour party apart? Participants weren’t able to think of much – and without this difference, there’s nothing to for them to rally behind and, what’s more, it encouraged a sense that all politicians are the same. With this in mind, few felt inclined to engage with what is on offer, and what the actual choice is.

7.And unite the party behind you

Regardless of who the next Labour leader is, one thing is for sure; without a united party behind them, they simply won’t be seen as a credible leader. Participants expressed distaste for the ‘constant bickering’ that was thought to characterise UK politics – they certainly did not want to see party in-fighting on top of this. As one participant put it: “as a party, they need to be united…if you’re party aren’t behind you, why should we?”

********

An impossible wish-list that no one could ever meet? Well, while the next Labour leader will certainly face an uphill struggle to win back voters who have lost confidence, the Conservative government was not talked about in glowing terms either – rather, they were routinely described as being ‘the best of a bad bunch’.

“We need to be given a credible alternative to be able to vote for Labour, someone with clear direct policies that are believable and that we understand….clear messages that enable us to vote for them”.

Nevertheless, while there still may not be lots of affection for the Conservatives, the onus will be on the next Labour leader to win back lost voters, whoever he or she is.  As participants bluntly acknowledged “they’ve lost our confidence” – something they traced back to 2008 and the financial crisis. And, in the absence of a credible Labour leader who can revitalise the party and engage with the voters on the issues of importance to them, then sticking with what they know will be the preferred option.  As one participant said:

“I’ve got a mortgage and two young kids and I feel secure right now…if Labour come in would they rock the boat?”

  • Ipsos MORI conducted two discussion groups on behalf of BBC Newsnight. One was conducted in Nuneaton on Thursday 20th August and the other in Croydon on Wednesday 26th August. Participants were all former Labour voters, who had voted for a different party (either the Conservatives, UKIP or the Liberal Democrats) in 2015. All were aged between 30 – 50 and were social grade C1C2.  Each discussion lasted around 90 minutes and was structured by a discussion guide. The full focus group will be broadcast on Newsnight tonight on BBC Two at 10:30pm.
 

[1] See for example Milazzo, C. and Mattes, K. Pretty faces, marginal races. Predicting Election Outcomes using Trait Assessments of British Parliamentary Candidate. This paper is also covered in Cowley, P. and Ford, R. (2014) Sex, Lies and the Ballot box – 50 things you need to know about British General Elections.

Gideon Skinner is Head of Political Research at IpsosMori. He tweets as @GideonSkinner.