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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Could the 2017 general election turn Wales blue?

The Conservatives have a chance to capture both the Leave Labour and the Ukip vote. 

For almost a century, general elections in Wales have been about Labour victories. Labour got the most votes in Wales for the first time in the 1922 general election, and it has done so at every general election since then. But this could just be the election where that formidable run comes to an end. Yes, things really are that bad for Labour.

Labour dominance in Wales has long meant Conservative weakness - the Tories always do worse in Wales than in England. But 2015 saw jubilant Tories across Wales celebrate their best general election result since the 1983 Thatcher landslide. Now they have realistic prospects of further advances. Even Bridgend - not won by the Tories since 1983, and held for the National Assembly by Labour First Minister Carwyn Jones - looks very winnable. Not only do the Conservatives face an enfeebled and divided Labour party; Theresa May's bold pitch for a Brexit mandate will likely win significant support in Wales. Almost the entire Welsh political establishment supported Remain here last year. But the Welsh people voted Leave, and the polling evidence suggests that they have not changed their mind. A Brexit-focused campaign could be particularly problematic for Labour in its most iconic Welsh bastions: all of the south Wales valleys voted Leave, many by substantial margins.

For Plaid Cymru this is an election they had not planned on and do not want. The Welsh nationalists have substantially thinner resources than their Scottish sister party, and did not want to be campaigning for anything other than the Welsh local council elections in 2017. The party has had internal problems aplenty in its National Assembly group, and could have done without the sort of profile that a general election campaign may bring. As in 2015, Leanne Wood's profile will likely benefit from the campaign exposure; but this did little electorally for her party then, and may do no more two years on. Labour's problems give Plaid realistic hopes of gaining the Ynys Mon seat, but there are few other potential positives to them from another election where the main focus will be on Britain-wide parties and issues.

For the Welsh Lib Dems, by contrast, this election may just offer them a way back after several cataclysmic years. In both the 2014 European election and in 2015, the party had an even lower vote share in Wales than in England and Scotland, while last year they were wiped out as a National Assembly party. But having positioned themselves as the voice of Remainers, a Brexit-focused campaign may offer them greater relevance. Such an appeal may cut little ice in much of Eurosceptic Wales, but could, for instance, give the party realistic hopes of regaining Cardiff Central - a student-heavy seat lost to Labour last time, but which backed Remain last June.

Finally, what of that rather strange entity, Ukip in Wales? The party has been on a roll in recent years: almost winning the 2014 European election, gaining more than 13.5 percent of the vote in 2015, and entering devolved politics with seven AMs elected last year. But since last May Ukip have largely been a shambles in the Assembly - and two of the seven AMs they elected no longer even sit in the Ukip group. With Theresa May's election pitch, and broader political strategy, having occupied much of Ukip's ideological turf, and the party continuing to feud internally, might this election be the beginning of the end for Ukip in Wales?

The one thing we can say for sure is that an early election means that the planned boundary changes will not go ahead. That has particularly big implications for Wales, which had been scheduled to lose its historic over-representation in the House of Commons, and see a drop from 40 to 29 MPs. For as long as election observers can recall, that over-representation has worked to the benefit of Labour and the detriment of the Conservatives. Could 2017 be the year when that ceases to be the case?

 

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

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