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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How to criticise the left

Thanks to the internet, a new discursive register has emerged: either you’re with us, to the most extreme interpretation of our ideas, or you’re against us.

If you use Twitter a lot, you may have wondered exactly how to criticise large parts of the left without sounding like a bigot, a racist, or worst of all Richard Dawkins. 

The legacy of what the internet calls “identity politics” is that the lived experience of an individual now not only informs a given debate, as well it should, but dominates it, leaving no room for dissent.

Coupled with the binary nature of the internet, in which layered ideas are pounded flat by the limitations of the format, a new discursive register has emerged: either you’re with us, to the most extreme interpretation of our ideas, or you’re against us. There are no in-betweens.   

For instance, even advocates of political correctness (as I am) often concede that the use of inclusionary language can potentially be wrongheaded or clumsy. Yet anyone caught contravening the latest iteration of an increasingly esoteric cant is blacklisted as a witch, a heretic, a mansplainer, a “whorephobe”, Richard Littlejohn, or a similarly unflattering slur.

It leads to a question: is this hectoring attitude towards cultural shibboleths likely to alienate well-meaning middle-grounders from ever truly engaging with the ideas?

Not that engagement is always the objective. The development of stylesheets to define a person’s credentials is also a defensive weapon – if someone lacks the argumentative tools to tackle an idea, they can discredit the person having the idea instead. It’s an excuse for emotional, rather than critical, thinking. “Why,” a leftist might ask today, “should I engage with Peter Hitchens on immigration or drug law, when he’s a Tory/racist/space alien?”  Twitter is lousy with people who know the answer before they’ve asked the question.

Equally the internet is a great way of insulating yourself against challenging ideas, and you can even become something of a left-wing darling among choirs of like-minded peers. But no matter your cachet within the hierarchy of progressiveness, will you ever be qualified to reliably discuss Beethoven if you’ve only ever listened to the Dead Kennedys? 

The reason I feel the need to analogise is that creativity is required to express ideas in an age where words and ideas can quickly become taboo. Try having a grown-up conversation about freedom of speech or immigration or austerity without the debate quickly descending into a face-off around each word’s representative categorical implications. Unironic use of the words free speech mark you as a libertarian, your stance on immigration makes you either pro or anti racism, and what you think about austerity implies whether or not class privilege courses inexorably through your veins. I am using this garish italicisation as is customary for non-integrated foreign words, because at this point they may as well be: these words have no longer have any original or literal meaning but represent only a wider cultural idea, like saying plus ca change or c'est la vie. 

Without doubt, this is a result of use, misuse and overuse, the sucking until flavourless the sour and sweet confectionary of political rhetoric. Powerful, provocative words cannot enjoy unlimited transplantations in and out of their intended context. Soon, the context will stop sticking, like worn-out velcro. We risk devaluing useful globules of language by repurposing them so often not as useful signifiers but as brands for the ideologically impure. 

This problem is by no means limited to the left – just look at how similarly right-wing parodies of social liberals miss the point of trigger warnings and safe spaces, warping the words beyond their intended uses – but the unifying factor of this context-free approach to language is that it makes criticism impossible without invoking some real or imagined transgression.

Think about when Charlie Hebdo recently published cartoons of Aylan Kurdi. The cartoons were many things – tasteless, offensive, upsetting – but instead the controversial magazine was accused of making fun of a young boy’s death. A cursory Google translation of the captions and an ounce of critical analysis confirms that this interpretation simply wasn’t true – but try typing that online without looking like you endorse Charlie Hebdo’s repugnant sketches. Like so much else, the answers to our questions of cultural morality exist in the spaces, where they can’t produce retweet-grabbing soundbites.

Maybe we should give up expecting balance in any criticism of the far left, the far right, or anyone. But we should always try to remember one of the things that separates us humans from pigs – chiefly, the ability to analyze a piece of communication critically. Tempting though it may be to allow emotions alone to decide our allegiances, mindlessly trotting in hundred-strong herds to whoever is offering the biggest pail of swill, we have the power to understand the world – and its language – objectively. We have the power to analyse and critique and discuss, beyond the scope of our base instincts. It’s a controversial thought these days, but perhaps if we remembered it more often, political discourse on the internet and beyond wouldn’t feel so much like Lord of the Flies.