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.

Photo: Getty
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Labour's woes in England won't be solved with an English Parliament

Labour has an English problem - but an English parliament isn't the solution, argues Tom Railton.

Who will speak for England? The front page of the Mail last Thursday may have been subjected to the kind of instant ridicule that makes Twitter worth enduring, but for some Labour MPs this is a question that deserves serious attention.

Since May, English identity politics has become something of a cause celebre in a parliamentary Labour Party which is increasingly anglicised. Partly this is a response to attempts by Labour north of the border to become more overtly Scottish in the face of an electorate with a sizeable nationalist element. Mainly though, it is a reaction to feedback from hundreds of doorstep conversations with voters who were convinced Ed Miliband was prepared to sell out England in a backroom deal with the SNP. 

Labour MPs are certainly right to be concerned. A perceived ambivalence towards English cultural identity is toxic in an electoral system where majorities are won and lost among older voters in the market towns of middle England. For many former Labour voters, the squeamish attitude of the left towards England is merely confirmation that politically correct cultural relativism has replaced common sense patriotism. The infamous incident of Emily Thornberry in Rochester only cut through with voters because they already believed that Labour felt uncomfortable with the flag of St George.

In response, a whole raft of answers have been proposed. At one end of the scale is Labour MP Toby Perkins’ campaign for a new English national anthem. This is an eminently sensible idea that is long overdue.

But some are convinced that more radical change is needed and have fixated on the idea of an English Parliament. This idea was floated again by Tristram Hunt in a speech to the grandly named Centre for English Identity and Politics, founded by former Labour MP and long-standing Englishness campaigner John Denham.

Calls for an English parliament have been echoing around the corridors of the palace of Westminster for decades and have been leant renewed vigour by the extension of devolution to other national assemblies. John Redwood and a small cabal of right wing Tories have obsessed about the perceived injustice of our asymmetric institutional arrangement at length, but there is little evidence that their ardour for a new English assembly has reached beyond the political classes. I heard English suspicion of the intentions of the SNP time and time again on doorsteps during the election, but not one person suggested to me that the problem would be solved by a new English parliament.

The fact is that the public simply do not care about constitutional injustice. This is a country where the majority of people are comfortable with an unelected monarch of German descent signing off all legislation. A country where even the modest campaign for the alternative vote was dismissed as irrelevant nonsense.

 Even Wales, which has more cause for grievance than England, only approved its own assembly by the barest majority. Now that a clumsy form of so-called English Votes for English Laws is in place it is impossible to even sustain the argument that the West Lothian Question in urgent need of an answer. It may be hard for political obsessives to grasp, but the public simply do not care. Like most campaigns for constitutional change, the crusade for an English parliament is an elite political project driven by a handful of bubble-dwellers. To put it simply, when people dress as crusaders at a cricket match people think it is funny, when they do so on a political campaign people think they are mad.

For Labour, it is hard to escape the conclusion that MPs are succumbing to a severe bout of “something must be done-ery”. Labour has an English problem. Something must be done to prove that Labour cares about England. An English Parliament is a thing. Therefore Labour should support an English Parliament. The post-traumatic stress of a general election and the powerless frustration of opposition can clearly have an interesting effect on people’s judgement.

None of this is to deny Labour’s problem with English identity, but it would make much more sense to channel energy into a better understanding of the symbols of national identity. A national anthem is a good idea. The flag of St George must be reclaimed from the far right in the same way the Union Jack has been wrestled out of the hands of the BNP. Politicians must become far more comfortable talking about Englishness, including talking about why so many first and second generation migrants have found Englishness such a hostile identity. That work is indeed urgent and it is encouraging that some Labour MPs are showing a willingness to act. But an English Parliament is a flamboyant distraction, not a solution. It is the answer to a question that the public are not asking. Labour MPs can already speak for England, they don’t need to build a new parliament to find their voices.