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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Iraq War opponents were called traitors and snakes – now it's happening with Brexit, too

After an “us and them” narrative this strong is established, often any empathy for “them” gets lost.

“We are all Brexiteers now,” said the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, in July, explaining why he felt comfortable backing the Remain-supporting Theresa May as his party leader. To which I’d like to reply: I’m not. Leaving the EU still seems like an act of wanton economic self-harm, and constitutional wrangling will crowd out any serious discussion of domestic policy and public services for years to come. Yes, it has to happen. But don’t expect me to be happy about it.

The other reason why I’m not cheering on the idea of Brexit is that it’s so clear that the Brexiteers don’t want me to. Their entire narrative relies on casting themselves as the underdogs, fighting the pernicious dominance of the “liberal elite”. These two words are a magic mantra, stronger than any industrial solvent: they wash away money, privilege and connections, rendering even the poshest bloke the authentic voice of the humble working man.

Unfortunately, encouragement for this type of attitude comes from the top. It was striking how little Theresa May’s Conservative party conference speech had to say to anyone who voted Remain and, indeed, how casually it caricatured 48 per cent of the population as la-di-da latte drinkers in £2m houses.

Are the people of Northern Ireland, who have the UK’s lowest average pay, weakest productivity and highest unemployment, members of this hated elite? They must be, because a majority of them voted to stay in Europe. What about the people of Lambeth, the area that had London’s highest Remain vote? They can’t escape the accusation of being metropolitan, true, but as the 22nd most deprived borough in England, I doubt they feel like elites, either.

Once an “us and them” narrative this strong is established, often any empathy for “them” gets lost. On 12 October, the Daily Express ran a comment piece by Chris Roycroft-Davis claiming that anyone who wanted a Commons vote on Brexit was arguing: “The people have spoken, we don’t like what they said because they aren’t as clever as us, so let’s ignore them and try to reverse the referendum result.” He added, “Such snake-like treachery cannot go unpunished. Here’s what I would do with them: clap them in the Tower of London.” And in case you think that this was just a columnist getting overexcited (like when Rod Liddle has too many cod liver oil pills and – oops! – ends up breaching a court order), consider the front-page headline: “Time to silence EU exit whingers”.

This madness is spreading. A Tory councillor called Christian Holliday recently started a petition calling for the Treason Felony Act to be amended, so that it would become an offence “to imagine, devise, promote, work, or encourage others to support the UK becoming a member of the European Union”. It got a dribble of signatures before he was suspended from the party. (Side note: his name would make him an excellent choice to lead this year’s inevitable round of the War on Christmas.)

I know that, individually, these seem like minor examples: we can’t ascribe too much significance to the ravings of local politicians and Express op-ed contributors. My concern is that these are only the lurid flowerings of a much deeper phenomenon: an insidious recasting of the events of 23 June as a huge landslide in favour of the hardest possible Brexit, rather than a 52-48 decision with millions of people in the soggy middle, worried about both immigration and the economy – and imagining that the government will try to arrange the best compromise between competing interests.

Yet we have already slipped into a space where “ordinary people” supported Brexit; where it is unpatriotic to question the exact form that leaving the EU should take. Any scrutiny by parliament is “subverting the will of the British people”, as if MPs were elected by some other group entirely. No one should try to overturn or even temper the referendum result, because, after all, it’s not as if Nigel Farage and his friends spent decades fighting the consensus in politics.

All of this reminds me of the rush to go to war in Iraq, when similar arguments were deployed: why do you hate freedom? Are you a terrorist sympathiser? Why aren’t you getting behind your government? Rereading some of the rhetoric from the early 2000s is chilling. A Sun front page in 2003 showed the then Lib Dem leader, Charles Kennedy, next to a cobra, asking readers to “spot the difference”: “One is a spineless reptile that spits venom . . . The other’s a poisonous snake.” At the 2004 Republican national convention, the keynote speaker Zell Miller told delegates: “Our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats’ manic obsession to bring down our commander-in-chief.” In other words, opposition was divisive and unpatriotic.

We are back in that dark place. We have lost the idea of politics as the art of endless compromise, trying to deliver the best possible result, pleasing the greatest possible number of people – and protecting a space for dissenters. Only 52 per cent
of us matter.

In her conference speech, May attacked Remainers for “find[ing] the fact that more than 17 million people voted to leave the European Union simply bewildering”. Well, yes. It sounds like a terrible idea to me. But I’m sure that Brexit voters would say the same about my opinions. Do we really think that Farage has an intuitive sense of my concerns? Yet, in this new world, he isn’t expected to understand me, although I have to understand him. And I have to shut up, too.

None of this is good for democracy. Good opposition makes governments better, by forcing them to think more deeply and strategically. The atmosphere in 2003 led to a catastrophe in another country. In 2016, it could lead to a disaster in this one. 

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.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood