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.

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Caroline Lucas's Diary

Saving my Commons seat, feeling sorry for Black Rod, and banning the bomb.

At the start of the week, I was in New York, where 130 countries are involved in the process of negotiating a global ban on nuclear weapons. You might not have heard of these talks, but there have been positive developments. Some nuclear states have softened their opposition to a ban, with China, India and Pakistan all abstaining from the vote last winter.

In this, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons – a coalition of peace campaigns united across 90 countries – is following a well-trodden path. Chemical and biological weapons, cluster munitions and landmines were all banned before full-scale decommissioning and disarmament began. Stigmatising the weapons, rather than the hypocrisy of nuclear states lecturing non-nuclear nations, is the most effective way to prevent their proliferation.

You might hope that Britain would be taking a leading role in the talks, but our government is conspicuous by its absence. An hour-long meeting with a British ambassador who is a political counsellor to the UN left me none the wiser as to why we’re refusing to take part. Every time I pushed him for answers, I was met with the same answer: the UK simply doesn’t want to engage with the process. Though I very much enjoyed momentarily sitting in the UK’s seat at the UN, it’s a great shame that such a role was left to a single opposition MP.

Tragedy and farce

Almost exactly a year after Britain voted to leave the EU, David Davis was in Brussels to begin the exit process. Davis and his counterpart Michel Barnier were reported to have discussed the nuts and bolts of the negotiations, rather than going into detail on the content of any deal. What the government could have done on day one is guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in Britain, but instead – shamefully – it continues to use them as a bargaining chip.

Theresa May’s tendency to plough on as if nothing has changed is veering between tragedy and farce. With the majority of the public now favouring both Theresa May’s resignation and a referendum on the terms of any EU deal, there really is no excuse for business as usual – and it’s time the government considers a cross-party commission to guide us through this process.

Let us pray

Seats in parliament are hotly contested,  especially for backbenchers. Every day we have to put down “prayer cards” to reserve a space. On big occasions, the scrum to bag a decent spot can be rather unparliamentary. My usual perch is between the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru and in front of the newly famous DUP. That party’s leadership doesn’t always share my politics, and my speeches are often accompanied by heckling from the line of DUP men behind me.

The Northern Irish party now has ten MPs sitting in parliament, while I remain the single MP for a party that received 200,000 more votes. I’ll be doing all I can to represent the views of the people of Brighton Pavilion and the 500,000 who voted Green in this election – and I would imagine that I’m likely to hear more moaning from the DUP as I spend my time in the Commons holding to account the Conservative government that it is propping up.

Slamming doors

Well, that’s the Queen’s Speech done then, and the monarch now has two years to prepare for the next round of pomp and ceremony. Our democracy is the big loser here, with the Tories showing a marked disdain for debate and scrutiny. But spare a thought, too, for Black Rod, who now has to wait until 2019 to have the door of the House of Commons slammed ceremonially in his face. His real name is Lieutenant General David Leakey and he has a number of duties in parliament, but the Queen’s Speech is his big gig. I shouldn’t think he will take kindly to being sidelined in 2018.

I have my own tradition on Queen’s Speech day: talking about the environment. More and more, governments ignore climate change and environmental protection in their legislative plans, with the Tories abandoning their husky-hugging in favour of a dash for gas.

I’ll be tabling an amendment to the Queen’s Speech calling for an environmental protection act. It will be interesting to see which MPs are willing to put their head above the parapet by backing it.

As safe as houses

People died at the Grenfell Tower because it has become a politically acceptable choice to cut corners to save money. Despite the right-wing press attempting to blame the EU and green laws for the fire, it’s clear that the Grenfell residents are the victims of deregulation, neoliberalism and the marginalisation of people of colour and the poor.

The surviving Grenfell residents now need a chance to rebuild their lives, and that should start with being given new homes. There are more than 1,300 empty homes in Kensington and Chelsea, with 941 classified as unoccupied for council tax purposes. Around 50 of these have been unoccupied for a staggering 11 years. Surely it’s time to rethink a system that allows the super-rich to leave homes unoccupied while people are left homeless? Let’s hike council tax for unoccupied properties to stop our cities being used as land banks for the wealthy.

My thoughts are also with those affected by the vile attack on the Finsbury Park Mosque. Islamophobia is widespread in our society, propagated by the likes of Donald Trump and Ukip, as well as far-right groups such as Britain First. A tweet by J K Rowling about the radicalisation of the Finsbury Park attacker caused a stir, but she was right to say that the origins of right-wing violence need exploring just as urgently as
Islamic extremism.

After a scarring few months, let’s hope for a peaceful summer as Britain rebuilds its communities and mourns those who have died in these terrible incidents.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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