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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Jeremy Corbyn's army of activists will be the difference against Ukip

The Labour leader's fresh alternative has inspired members - and will see off Ukip in Oldham West and Royton. 

Perhaps one of the greatest problems with socialism is that an opinion always requires an explanation. There are many people I speak to whom often see a certain socialist perspective as rational after a few minutes of conversation. But on the doorstep, those minutes often add up rather quickly. The advantage that groups such as Ukip have is that they are able to offer a reactionary opinion in a matter of seconds. It is important to remember that that is exactly what Ukip is: a reactionary party, of reactionary politics and reactionary politicians.

The politicisation of terrorism crises such as the Paris attacks serves to warp the minds of the general public. When Nigel Farage jumps to accuse all Muslims of “split loyalties” in reaction to the Paris massacre he does so to incite fear. People are very, very scared. At the moment, my usual commute on the Tube is marked by the same jerks of the train every so often, but it is now accompanied by an occasional gasp and many worried faces. Amid this worry the political ground becomes fertile for reactionary groups such as Ukip. This is what is worrying about the upcoming by-election in Oldham West and Royton.

But Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has a weapon that the Labour party has not held for a very long time. It is one that was emphasised by Ed Miliband in his recent endorsement for the new leader: an army of devoted, passionate members. Many of these members are young and energetic, and to be fair to the older generation, many of them are newly energised too. Those conversations that take a few more minutes to conduct can now be performed with an even greater number of conversations occurring. The conversations that occurred at the last election were not serious ones: the new politics has to be about engaging with constituents and voters, rather than simply asking how they vote.

This is the major factor that demonstrates why Labour can beat the reactionary politics of Ukip in Oldham. The right-wing papers can claim that we are sinking in the polls in the area but I seriously doubt it. Ukip will not be capturing an area that has revitalised itself since the race riots of 2001. Local people want nothing to do with Farage’s divisive politics. As the Ukip candidate, John Bickley, wraps himself in the Union Jack because he is proud of his trigger-happy views on Syria he forgets the fact that his party stands against working people reliant on tax credits. Working people in the constituency must be under no illusions: Ukip does not stand for them.

Locals that I have spoken to in the area support this view; Bickley is not in touch with local opinion and is out of line with his politicisation of the Paris tragedy. Labour candidate, Jim McMahon said it best when he claimed that it wasn’t “for some bloke from Cheshire to rock up in Oldham” and start shouting the odds on local projects. Local people hold huge admiration for the late Michael Meacher who was a huge supporter of Jeremy. The number signing up to Momentum’s campaign day this Saturday has allayed the worry by many “moderates” that the new cohort was full of paper members. Forget what the doom-mongers are saying; on the ground, Labour activists are powering on, taking a positive message to the real voters on the ground.