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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Why Zac Goldsmith's defeat matters

Today's Morning Call. 

The Liberal Democrats have won a remarkable victory in Richmond Park. The numbers that matter:

Sarah Olney (Liberal Democrat) 20,510 (49 per cent)

Zac Goldsmith (Nominally independent but let’s face it Tory) 18,638 (45 per cent)

Christian Wolmar (Labour) 1,515 (4 per cent)

It’s a 23 per cent swing to the Liberal Democrats and a 30 per cent increase in their vote. It’s a shot in the arm for Tim Farron’s team, and a hammer blow to Theresa May. Yes, Goldsmith may have worn a different rosette for this one, but he had the covert support of the Conservatives nationally and their overt support locally.

What does it all mean? The Richmond result means that Tory backbenchers now know that Brexit is putting jobs at risk: theirs. We now know for certain, that the pattern we witnessed in the Witney by-election and in local results, that the Liberal Democrats are doing well in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote in June, is not a fluke. It is a trend. 

What matters though is perhaps not whether the Liberal Democrats can cohere the 22 per cent of voters who believe the referendum should be overturned behind their flag. What matters is that Brexit appears to have cleansed the Liberal Democrats of the sins of coalition, at least as far as Labour voters are concerned. That party’s vote share, which went up in most Conservative-Liberal battlegrounds in 2015, was well down in Richmond Park last night, with Wolmar losing his deposit. 

And that really should spook Conservative MPs. Because while seats that voted Remain in a landslide are rare, Conservative seats which the Liberal Democrats held in 2010 where the Labour vote in third place is bigger than the Tory majority…aren’t.

FLAN-BYE
French President Francois Hollande has announced that he will not be a candidate in next year’s French presidential election and will not contest the Socialist Party’s primary. In practice, it may mean less than we think for next year’s election. Arnaud Montebourg, the former minister from the party’s left,  looked likely to beat Hollande in the primary any way and starts as the favourite against Manuel Valls, the sitting Prime Minister, and great hope of the party’s right flank. Anne-Sylvaine Chassany has a potted history of Hollande’s rise and fall.

PAY TO PLAY

David Davis has admitted that the government is considering continuing to pay into the EU’s budget after Brexit in order to secure access to the single market, as Morning Call readers first read way back in September.  “Davis backs soft Brexit in blow to hardliners” is the Times’ splash.

IDS’ LAST HORCRUX

David Freud, the Conservative peer and architect of the Universal Credit, has retired from the government. I’m told that Freud’s retirement is genuinely the result of his personal preferences, not a commentary on the troubled UC programme. I explain what its future might be in greater detail here.

ALREADY INTEGRATING, ACTUALLY

93 per cent of British Muslims feel a “fairly” or “very strong” attachment to Britain and, just as with the rest of the population, identify the NHS, unemployment and immigration as the biggest issues facing the country. More than half want to “fully integrate”. The findings are part of a ICM survey commissioned by Policy Exchange, the centre-right think tank. The full Policy Exchange report can be read here.

TONY BLAIR’S INSTITUTE FOR ENDANGERED SPECIES

Tony Blair has launched a new institute to “inform and support the practising politician”, aiming to boost support for the pro-globalisation centre. Julia has the details.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

Tom interviews Zadie Smith about multiculturalism, cultural appropriation and her new novel Swing Time.

MUST READS

George on why Richmond Park will scare Tory MPs

Paul Nuttall plans to destroy Labour. Helen asks if he can succeed

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Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.