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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“Rhodes must fall,” chants the crowd. But bringing down an imperialist’s statue won’t change the past

“Rhodes is a metaphor for the fact that the university is not a fully inclusive space,” says Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh.

You’ve got to look quite hard to spot it: a statue four feet high, rather attractive and informal, way above street level, on the façade of Oriel College on the High Street in Oxford. The only way you would know that it was Cecil John Rhodes, apart from the Latin inscription beneath the figure, is that he is wearing a three-piece suit and holding his familiar slouch hat in his right hand. Around this manikin a row of surprising proportions has arisen.

It is a by-blow of the much greater and far more serious dispute in South Africa, in the course of which Rhodes’s statue at the university he helped found in Cape Town has been hustled out of sight after being smeared with paint and excrement and surrounded time and again by angry, chanting students. Now the slogan “Rhodes must fall” has been picked up in the quieter atmosphere of Oxford. Oriel, which Rhodes briefly attended, is the centre of the fuss because it commemorates him with the statue in question. All this has given rise to an air of nervousness among some elements of the university hierarchy. But is it justified?

In the street outside the college, as many as 300 people gathered in the intermittent rain one recent Friday to listen to speeches, be taught some of the old liberation chants from Southern Africa and watch a bit of toyi-toying – of the kind we used to see in the days of the anti-apartheid demonstrations. A second-year history student told the crowd, “There’s a violence to having to walk past the statue every day on the way to your lectures.” Although most of us need to have the statue pointed out to us, that was greeted by applause. People often rather like the idea that they’re the victims of violence when there are no other signs of it.

Rhodes was an extraordinary man: a country clergyman’s sickly fifth son from Bishop’s Stortford who by sheer drive became one of the richest people on Earth, the founder of De Beers, the prime minister of the Cape Colony and the carver-out of two territories that eventually became Zambia and Zimbabwe. He also created one of the most effective and beneficial educational exchanges in the modern world – the Rhodes scholarships – and all this before his death at the age of 48.

He wasn’t a nice man, even by the standards of the time. Outspokenly racist and imperialist, he could sometimes sound Hitlerian: “Just fancy those parts [of Africa] that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings – what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence!” One of his personal secretaries turned against him when he talked with apparent relish about slaughtering black people. Still, Rhodes was complex: almost certainly gay, a supporter of Irish home rule and a Liberal. Although he helped to provoke the Boer War, he was a friend to the Cape Afrikaners and supported their language and culture.

The leading figure behind the “Rhodes must fall” campaign in Oxford is Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, a South African doctoral student of philosophy whose teachers regard him with affection and respect. There is nothing about him of the menace of some of the protesters in Cape Town, who have chanted “One settler, one bullet” and, it is alleged, “Kill the whites” at demonstrations.

Mpofu-Walsh’s father is the national chairman of Julius Malema’s fiery Economic Freedom Fighters in South Africa but Sizwe follows a more sophisticated brand of protest, better adapted to the atmosphere of Oxford. “Rhodes is a metaphor for the fact that the university is not a fully inclusive space,” he says. He maintains that the curriculum at Oxford concentrates on Europe and the US rather than on the wider world, though that may be news to all those Rhodes scholars from Africa who have studied at Oxford and returned home to enrich the medical, philosophical and political lives of their countries. But Mpofu-Walsh touches a genuinely sensitive point when he points out that the university accepted only 24 black British undergraduates last year. “We want Oxford to improve its representation of black voices.”

You might think that Nelson Mandela’s decision to allow his name to be associated with that of Rhodes in South Africa, in forming the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, would give some protection to the old white supremacist. Not so. One of the more melancholy things that have happened in South Africa in recent years has been that Mandela, by taking his stand for reconciliation, has increasingly been seen as an Uncle Tom by many black people there – and the link with Rhodes hasn’t helped.

The desire to cleanse history of its unattractive sides isn’t restricted to Southern Africa. But the past is the past; it can’t be changed. Charles Conn, Warden of Rhodes House, Oxford, who oversees the Rhodes scholarships, says: “We should interrogate history, of course, and learn its lessons. Nearly all historical figures held views at odds with our perspectives today. Rhodes, Jowett, Jefferson, even Gandhi, had beliefs that we find out of touch and even abhorrent. But we don’t serve the pursuit of knowledge if we agree to airbrush or bulldoze history.”

Will Rhodes’s statue in Oxford be taken down, like the one outside Cape Town University? Surely not, if only for the prosaic reason that the Oriel building it stands on is listed and it will take a lot more than the shouted slogans of a few hundred students to get rid of it. For many, attacking the symbols that some minority happens to dislike smacks a bit too much of Islamic State blasting away the incomparable reliefs of Nimrud. But the demonstrators have a point. Oxford University ought to try to be less white, less Eurocentric, less everything that Cecil Rhodes once wanted it to be.

John Simpson is the world affairs editor of BBC News

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror