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.

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The "people" have spoken on Brexit - listening to them is another matter

The Athenians had another word for them. 

Commentators are right to point to the fury and frustration of the "left behind", who are, everywhere it seems, rebelling against establishments they believe have betrayed them. 

But they may understate the threat we now face. Many of those who voted for Brexit or Donald Trump were not just rejecting economic injustice or "broken politics" but also perhaps the very principles of our system of government. For them, democracy itself may have lost its appeal.

If that is the case, we can’t blame the elites alone. We, "the people", are complicit. In associating democracy almost exclusively with economic advancement, we have begun to forget that it is also, and principally, about shared values, rights and responsibilities. In the UK and the US, voters in their millions have traded one against the other. The citizens of the Netherlands and France may soon do the same.

It's too early to panic. Perhaps we’ll come to see that Brexit was not the calamity some of us predict; perhaps President Trump will turn out to be better than we fear he may be.  

But we would be foolish to ignore the precedents. 

The great democracy of ancient Greece lasted two hundred years. But then, subverted by demagogues and oligarchs, and overwhelmed at last by autocrats, it disappeared from the world for 2,000 years. For all that time, the citizens of today’s democracies were the subjects of tyrants, elites and ideologues but never of themselves.

Modern history provides no greater reassurance. Even when democracy has apparently been secured, it has consumed itself at the ballot box with awful consequences. We are not in that place. But in the UK and the US we have taken a step in its direction.

Rights and responsibilities

The dilemmas we face are as old as democracy itself.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the Athenian statesman Pericles set out for his fellow citizens the precepts of their remarkable democracy. He spoke of the equality of their rights before the law. But he laid particular emphasis on their duties to each other. The word he used for the "socially useless" individuals who placed self above public interest provides the origin of our own word – idiot. 

What would Pericles make of us? Certainly, we remain jealous of our rights, especially when we feel that they are threatened by others. But our preoccupation with personal aspiration has long since eroded our sense of common cause, whether measured by our engagement in civic affairs, our contribution to community life or the civility of our relations with others.

On these grounds, we are doubtless idiots.

A reasonable principle

But for the Athenians, democracy was founded on a third key principle. Alongside rights and responsibilities, they regarded the exercise of reason as indispensable to good politics. As Pericles put it:

“We reach decisions on public policy only after full discussion, believing that sound judgement, far from being impeded by debate, is arrived at only when full information is considered before a decision is made."

Can we honestly claim that in the EU referendum or the US Presidential elections, voters collectively exercised sound judgment based on reliable evidence, rational deliberation and open-minded debate? 

More likely, we recognise that what passed for public discourse throughout both campaigns was poisoned by deceit. The goal of the politicians who set out to mislead was clear. But instead of punishing them for their cynicism, millions suspended their disbelief and voted for them, often quite consciously choosing not to test their instincts against the evidence or their own opinions against other views. As much as they were misled, they also misled themselves. 

This was precisely the concern of democracy’s earliest critics, Plato and Aristotle among them. They worried that the system was inherently unstable not least because the people could be too easily swayed by their emotions and too readily seduced by shallow populists into decisions which were neither reasonable nor just - nor sensible. 

Representation

But if democracy is in danger, where are its defenders? When the people have been so badly misled and when the potential consequences are so serious, who should protect them if not their elected representatives? Isn’t that why in both UK and US we favour a representative system?

At least until now, we have accepted that our elected politicians have a duty not just to check the power of government but also to mitigate public opinion when it undermines sound or just policy. Our legislators should be the servants but not the slaves of their electorates.

The 18th century statesman Edmund Burke went further than most in believing that he would be betraying his constituents were he to sacrifice his judgement to their opinion. When in 1778 he defied them on the issue of free trade, he expressed the hope that if he forfeited their votes:

“It will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong."

He lost his seat but perhaps retained his integrity.

As the democratic franchise was extended, other thinkers worried about the potential for conflict between public opinion and sound policy. In the 1830s, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, a close observer of the developing American democracy, warned against any decision "which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence". John Stuart Mill, in his great essay On Liberty, feared for the rights of minorities when government is mandated by majority opinion.

All these critics favoured government by elites, be they philosopher kings or aristocrats. Our societies are considerably more liberal than those they envisaged, and that is to our credit. But even if we reject their politics, we should acknowledge that recent events have given their concerns new currency.

Whose people?

Indeed, the EU referendum was everything they dreaded - a triumph for unreason, a basis for unsound policy, a threat to democratic principle and, potentially at least, a suppression of the rights of minorities. 

But at the very moment when our tradition of representative democracy should be protecting us, it seems that Parliament’s responsibilities have been radically reinterpreted. The Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that “the British people have spoken” and that, even though she herself doubts its wisdom, their decision cannot be challenged. It has taken the intervention of the High Court to remind her of the role of a sovereign Parliament in the making of public policy.

We know, if only because right-wing newspapers have identified them for us, who are the enemies of the people. But who are those "people” whose judgement the PM regards as sacrosanct? 

Are they “the whole nation” for which she has publicly pledged to govern – or the 37 per cent of the electorate which voted for Brexit? Must the overwhelming majority which did not now remain silent and unrepresented? And in such circumstances is democracy served or subverted?

Too many politicians, cowed by campaigners whose objectives they fear, bullied by press barons they despise and apparently indifferent to their own constitutional responsibilities, have set aside their own judgement of the public good and fooled themselves into believing that when the people speak, their will must be done whatever it is and whatever its consequences.

But ultimately there is no such thing as "the people", only an aggregation of groups and individuals with a plurality of beliefs, opinions and interests. Talking about them in the definite article obliterates those differences. Precisely because it is so definite, it is intolerant, oppressive and undemocratic.

Back from the brink

Now, more than ever, we need parties and politicians with the courage not just to listen to but also to lead public opinion, and to stand against it when they believe it wrong. 

More than ever, we need a media which acknowledges its responsibility to inform as well as to influence, and show a far greater commitment to the truth.

More than ever, we the people should recognise that a strong and healthy democracy demands more of us than we seem prepared to give.

Democracies have come and gone – in ancient Greece and modern Europe. If ours is to prevail, we must both individually and collectively acknowledge our responsibilities as well as our rights and, critically, we must restore the importance of reason – and reasonableness – to the ways in which we deliberate, debate and decide.

As it is, we have already entered an age of unreason. Unless we come to our senses, it’s impossible to predict when or where it will end. 

Peter Bradley is director of Speakers’ Corner Trust and a former Labour MP.