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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Don't let the spin hide George Osborne's tax rises

Far from U-Turning, Osborne has simply changed the way he hits the working poor.

Nothing should distract from the fact that yesterday George Osborne announced another £28bn of tax rises that will hit working people, families and businesses around Britain.

As is so often the case, the Chancellor had a series of bold claims which began to unravel as soon as we saw the details in the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR)’s blue book.

Of course, he claimed to have changed his mind on tax credits. But in reality when Universal Credit is introduced, notwithstanding its shambolic roll-out, many of these cuts will still hit working people hard. The independent OBR has made it quite clear that “the cost of the tax credit reversal is more than offset by cuts to a variety of other benefits”.

On social security spending, the Chancellor’s couldn’t even pretend he had a story to tell of sound management. He was forced to admit that he will breach his self-imposed welfare cap – not just for one year, but for three successive years. The Conservatives illustrate how a crude ideological approach, rather than patient and careful reform, is failing to root out the massive costs of fraud and error.

Meanwhile the Resolution Foundation has found that working households on Universal Credit, the replacement for tax credits, will lose an average of £1,200 in 2020, and £1,300 for those with children. 

George Osborne has now carried out two Budgets and a Spending Review this year and we have had a different plan on each occasion.

As he hastily rewrote his plans over the last few weeks his political allies have tried to hide the chaos by claiming he was in “listening mode” – but after yesterday there will be many more problems to which the Chancellor will have to pay attention.

Look at the detail of his announcements. With that extra £28bn of taxes and an additional £18bn of borrowing, he has veered wildly off the course he set himself.

After being forced to back down on some of his cuts to the police, George Osborne is still hacking away at public services, such as the budget for transport which shrinks by 37%.

By imposing major cuts on business development he will hold back, rather than help boost our economic prosperity. And local authorities have been hit for six with a combination of massive grant cuts and enforced council tax rises which will be harder to shoulder especially in less well-off communities.

The Chancellor’s announcements have already caused the OBR to downgrade disposable income by end of this Parliament, with the productivity rate revised down for three years from 2016 and average earnings also falling from 2016 onwards.

Together these changes show George Osborne has no long-term vision for sustainable growth in output and living standards. Add to this his now depressingly traditional practice of selling off more of the taxpayer’s assets on the cheap – with the Land Registry the latest public body under threat from a cut-price privatisation – and the picture emerges of a Chancellor who will do anything to try to achieve his fiscal targets at the beginning of the Parliament in order to boost his chances of being prime minister by the end of it.

In politics, changing your mind can sometimes be a sign of a strength. Yesterday, however, all we saw was short-termism from a man who might claim to be a modern conservative but delivered a very old-fashioned mixture of attacks on working families, spending cuts and typical Tory tax rises.

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.