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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Tory leaflets "falsely claim" Labour MPs in Stoke voted against Brexit

Local MPs Ruth Smeeth and Rob Flello have sought legal advice. 

The Conservative campaign in Stoke-on-Trent Central could face a legal challenge after a mailshot claimed two of the city’s Labour MPs – both of whom voted for Article 50 – had “voted against” Theresa May’s Brexit plan. 

It is understood that both Stoke North’s Ruth Smeeth and Stoke South’s Rob Flello have sought legal advice.

A Tory leaflet in which the Prime Minister addresses voters in the by-election accuses the two MPs of trying to block Brexit in the Commons last week.

Yet while the decision to vote for the Article 50 bill divided Labour, both Smeeth and Flello voted with the government to begin the process of Brexit.

The letter reads:

“Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party can’t agree whether they want to take control of our laws and our borders. They seem to be intent on finding new ways of frustrating the process of leaving. Last week, Stoke’s two other Labour MPs and the Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme [Paul Farrelly, who voted against Article 50] all voted against my plan to deliver Brexit.”

In response, Smeeth tweeted that she was "utterly disgusted" that Theresa May had "lied" about her voting record. A Labour source said the MP, a senior figure in Labour’s by-election campaign, has written to the prime minister to demand a public apology and retraction. 

The Conservatives maintain the letters are only referring to MPs' support for amendments to the bill.

A similar leaflet was delivered to homes in Copeland, where Labour faces another crucial by-election next Thursday. It also accused neighbouring Labour MPs of voting to block Brexit the day before last Wednesday’s Article 50 vote. Neither John Woodcock nor Sue Hayman, the MPs for the adjacent constituencies of Barrow-in-Furness and Workington, voted against Article 50. 

The leaflets matter because both constituencies voted decisively for Brexit – Stoke was 70 per cent Leave, and Copeland 62 per cent. The Prime Minister’s uncompromising rhetoric on the EU has featured prominently in the Tories’ campaign material.

With Labour's existential bind on Brexit increasingly apparent, the row provides an early indication of the sort of campaigns Labour MPs of all stripes will face in leave constituencies at the next general election. 

Sue Hayman, the Workington MP and shadow environment secretary, said she was disappointed that the Tories had tried to spin her votes for Labour amendments to the Article 50 bill as attempts to block Brexit. She said: "I'm disappointed that the Conservatives are trying to claim that Cumbria's Labour MPs are blocking Brexit. While I campaigned for a Remain vote last year, I of course accept the democratic result of the country and of my constituency, which voted to Leave the EU.

"That is why I voted for the bill to trigger Article 50 at both second and third readings in the House of Commons. However, nobody voted to leave the EU in order to make our country or economy poorer, which is why last week I voted for Labour amendments to the Bill on a range of issues, including our continuing membership of Euratom, which was supported by the nuclear industry that is so important to my constituency."

Defending the controversial campaign tactic, a Conservative spokesman said both MPs had backed amendments to the Article 50 bill that “would have put restrictions on the Prime Minister’s negotiation position and curbed her ability to negotiate the very best deal for Britain”.

He said: “The Prime Minister has set out a clear plan for Brexit which Jeremy Corbyn's Labour MPs, including the two Labour MPs in Stoke-on-Trent and the Labour MP in Newcastle-under-Lyme, tried to block or delay in Parliament. Only Jack Brereton will back the Prime Minister’s clear plan to deliver a successful Brexit for Stoke-on-Trent and the United Kingdom.”

A Downing Street spokesperson also confirmed that the letters were intended to refer to Labour MPs' votes for amendments to the bill, and not votes against the bill itself.