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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What matters for Labour is not the general election but what happens next

Jeremy Corbyn will have to decide whether, like some of his predecessors, to stay on - or resign immediately. 

A handful of recent polls suggest Labour is doing better than many expected at the start of the campaign. Whatever the reason, though, the gap between it and the Conservatives is still a yawning one. Bluntly, it remains the case that this election is not about whether Labour is going to lose, it’s about how badly.

What matters for Labour, then, is what happens next and that depends in part on how many parliamentary seats the party ends up with on 9 June.

Clearly, judging from its tax, spend, and nationalise manifesto, and from the study made of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign itinerary by the BBC’s Chris Cook, the leadership is hoping not so much to win over undecided voters as to mobilise its base sufficient to match or even surpass Ed Miliband’s 30.4 per cent of the vote in 2015.

But while that might allow Corbyn and co to mount a rhetorical argument in favour of keeping him in place, it’s unlikely to be enough (owing to the number of Labour-held marginals that will inevitably fall to a resurgent Conservative party) to stop Labour dropping below two hundred seats. And if their plan doesn’t work, and Labour’s vote share ends up somewhere in the mid-to-late 20s, then the party could emerge from the election holding just a quarter of the available seats in the Commons.

Whatever happens, Corbyn will have to decide whether, like some of his predecessors, to stay on or, as Ed Miliband did in 2015, to accept responsibility for the defeat and resign immediately. If he stays on, it will presumably be not so much because he plans to be in the job for another full parliamentary term but because he hopes his being there will improve the chances of his being replaced sooner or later by another MP from the radical wing of the party – something made more likely, though by no means certain, should the parliamentary Labour party’s left manage to change the rules to reduce the number of nominations required to make it onto the ballot paper sent out to its largely left-liberal membership.

There are, however, two problems with this strategy. First, the left is not as good at grassroots organising as many assume, and there is no guarantee that they will achieve that rule change at Labour’s autumn conference. Second, Corbyn could well face a challenge before then anyway. And if he is challenged over the summer (names bandied around include Yvette Cooper, Chukka Umunna and possibly Dan Jarvis), then no-one should take it as given that he will win – not after a damaging election defeat and a possible change of heart on the part of those trade union leaders whose ideology does not trump their concerns about throwing their members’ good money after bad.

If, on the other hand, Corbyn resigns immediately after the party’s defeat, it will be because left-wing Labour MPs reckon they can count on 15 per cent of their colleagues in the PLP and the party’s delegation to the European Parliament to nominate one of their number for the leadership. Calculations vary, but this is by no means impossible, not least because Corbynite MPs are slightly more likely to escape losing their seats than the non-Corbynite MPs who will continue to make up the bulk of the PLP after the general election. Should they achieve their aim, Labour’s fate will again be the hands of its membership.

Again, though, we should be careful not to assume the party’s grassroots will automatically opt for another left-winger – a Corbyn clone or mini-me. Members value their principles, and many will doubtless buy into the argument that their hero Jeremy was traduced by the media and stabbed in the back by his "Blairite" parliamentary colleagues. But research suggests that party members also care about power as well as protest, so they won’t necessarily relish the prospect of a further five (and probably ten) years out of office.

That said, if Labour members do vote for Corbyn or another out-and-out seventies-style socialist (as opposed to a Neil Kinnock-style "soft left", compromise candidate), then we need to contemplate the possibility (if not yet the probability) that the party could suffer a potentially fatal split as the moderate majority of the PLP looks for a way out of what by then will look to many of them like a burning building.

Inertia, of course, is a much-underestimated force, and behavioural psychology teaches us that loss-aversion is just as powerful. On the other hand, so, too, is the feeling that sometimes you have nothing left to lose. If that applies to a substantial number of Labour MPs, then look past the election for a moment because this summer, like last summer, could be a truly historic one for British politics.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.  The second edition of his book, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, was published in September 2016 by Polity Press.

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