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
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Could Jeremy Corbyn lose after all?

Saving Labour's numbers are plausible - but they feel unlikely. 

Saving Labour, the anti-Corbyn organisation, has released its analysis of figures showing that, far from the landslide victory for Jeremy Corbyn expected by the bookmakers – and indicated by his dominant showing in constituency nominations and in the only public YouGov poll of the race – they predict a much closer race – one that Smith will edge by 3902 votes.

The numbers are the result of Saving Labour’s analysis of its own mailing list and information about where exactly the £25 supporters and trade union affiliates live and what they do. But are they right?

Well, their estimates for the party membership fit with everything we know thus far.

Saving Labour estimate that Corbyn will defeat Smith among members by 57 to 43 per cent. That’s within the margin of error shown in the only public YouGov poll of the race thus far, which put the two candidates at 56 to 34 per cent, with the remainder undecided.

It also fits the pattern of constituency nominations – yes, Corbyn has taken 84 per cent of those, but when you look at the underlying figures, what you’d expect is a roughly 60-40 vote share. (The excellent Psephography Twitter account, which has also been collating CLP nominations, has produced a similar projection to mine.)  

That brings us to the known unknowns of the Labour leadership race: affiliated trade unionists and the registered supporters who have paid £25 for a one-off vote in the Labour leadership race.

The turnout figures for both are a carbon-copy of last year’s, which feels about right, although who knows, perhaps the sense of it being a foregone conclusion might lead to a turnout drop in the manner of Labour’s second successive landslide in 2001.

To overturn that heavy defeat among members, Smith would need big wins among trade unionists and registered supporters, both of which went for Corbyn by large margins last time.

My immediate response to Saving Labour’s figures – which, you guessed it, show him getting exactly those big wins among those sections – was “how very convenient”. But again, the underlying figures are plausible and fit with what we know: that many of last year’s £3 supporters became full members shortly after Corbyn’s victory, and many of the members most opposed to him left in short order. Look at it this way: if last year’s £3ers were drawn from “Old Labour in exile”, it is possible this year’s £25ers are “New Labour in exile”.

As for the trade union figures, Saving Labour believe they have successfully focused on recruiting trade unionists in fields that Corbyn has set himself against – aerospace, defence and pharmaceuticals. And again, this is perfectly plausible. We know, thanks to a series of polls commissioned by Ian Warren, a former Labour staffer, that support for Corbyn has fallen among members of the affiliated unions.

Plausible, but, not, I think, likely. Why not?

Let’s start with those trade unionists. Yes, we know that most members of affiliated trade unions are not that enamoured of Corbyn. But we also know that most members of affiliated trade unions are not that concerned with the Labour party. That’s partly why more than one of Labour’s trade union general secretaries is striking a far more pro-Corbyn tone in public than in private – because while their Corbynscepticism may be closer to that of the millions of union members who don’t vote in internal elections, they need to retain the support of Corbyn-backing activists who do vote.

It feels more likely than not that the tiny minority of trade unionists who choose to vote will be closer to the politically active members of their own trade unionists, particularly as Saving Labour had a relatively small window to recruit trade unionists.  

As for the £25ers, having rung round local parties, my impression is that, on average, a third of them are members who joined after the freeze date, with the rest unknown. It could be, therefore, that these additional sign-ups are “New Labour in exile”.

But again, it doesn’t feel likely. Although the support base for both Corbyn and his opponents, is, on the whole, able to afford to pay £25 for a vote, my feeling is that regardless of how much you earn, £25 still feels like quite a bit of money. Remember that for most of the window, it was unclear which of Angela Eagle or Owen Smith were going to be the candidate to take on the Labour leader – and neither of them were lighting up enough stages to motivate people to shell out to vote for one or both of them.

So while the numbers are certainly believable – I’ll believe it when it happens.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.