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Online abuse, leaked nudes and revenge porn: this is nothing less than terrorism against women

The abuse of women on the internet, like the hacking of female celebrities' naked photos, is not just intended to hurt the individuals involved. These are  deliberately outrageous acts designed to create a spectacle and to instil fear in a target population - in other words, terrorism.

Jennifer Lawrence. Photo: Getty
Jennifer Lawrence. Photo: Getty

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Two years ago, I wrote about a cultural critic called Anita Sarkeesian, who had appealed on a crowd-funding website for money to make a video series about women in games. She got the cash – she even raised about $150,000 more than she’d asked for – but she also became the subject of a vicious, targeted and relentless online harassment campaign.

That was 26 months ago and – spoiler alert – the abuse is still going on. On 27 August, Sarkeesian posted a screen grab of tweets sent to her, one of which read: “I’m going to go to your apartment at [redacted] and rape you to death. After I’m done, I’ll ram a tire iron up your cunt.” She reported the threats to the police and left her flat to stay with friends.

At the same time, a female games developer – who I will call Z – was also being harassed. After a bad break-up, her ex-boyfriend accused her of cheating on him with a games journalist. An electronic army took up his grievance; she was sent death threats, nude photos of her were dug up and she was accused of “sleeping her way to the top” and “corrupting games journalism”.

The common thread that links these two stories is the swarms of self-appointed internet vigilantes, co-ordinated through sites such as Reddit, an aggregator and discussion forum, and 4chan, the image board that spawned the hacker group Anonymous. “Whenever I see a noticeable uptick in hate and harassment sent my way, there’s almost always an angry Reddit thread somewhere,” Sarkeesian tweeted in July last year.

I find it almost impossible to avoid the trap of talking about Reddit and 4chan as if they were homogeneous places, even though I know they are not. There are parts of Reddit that I love – the “EarthPorn” forum fulfils my need to spend at least ten minutes a week staring at mountains – but also some fairly grim backwaters. The “Killing­Women” forum, for example, does exactly what it says on the tin. I’m sure there are parts of 4chan that are interesting, too, but there’s just too much gore and extreme porn to wade through on the way.

Nonetheless, it’s possible to outline the broad ideologies of the sites. Reddit’s allegiance is to “free speech”; it wasn’t until 2012 that it banned child abuse images. The users of 4chan, meanwhile, are “in it for the lulz” (as the great philosopher Alfred Pennyworth once told Batman, “Some men just want to watch the world burn”).

These codes provide cover for a pastime as old as patriarchy: punishing women who step out of line. The nude photos of female celebrities, including the actress Jennifer Lawrence, were presumably hacked for the lulz – as well as for bitcoins, which a 4channer initially requested in exchange for them. Now it seems that half of Reddit’s users have decided it is their chivalrous duty to find the identity of the 4chan user who hacked the pictures. The other half are busy uploading the photos to the internet every time an image-hosting service removes them.

Somewhere out there, I hope, a psychology student is gathering material for an excellent thesis. In the meantime, something strikes me about both the celebrity photo hack and the harassment of Anita Sarkeesian and Z. This is a form of terrorism. (Sarkeesian agrees: “There is just no other word for it,” she tweeted on 31 August.)

What we are witnessing are deliberately outrageous acts designed to create a spectacle and to instil fear in a target population. Where Osama Bin Laden watched in approval as every news network endlessly replayed the footage of a plane hitting a tower, the hackers and harassers must feel thrilled by all the carefully search-engine-optimised headlines above articles decrying the latest leaked pictures. It is a function of successful terrorism that the media becomes unavoidably complicit in spreading the terror. There is no way to report the story without increasing its potency. We cannot stop looking.

As for the target population, tell me that young women aren’t supposed to look at the harassment of Sarkeesian for being a public figure and get the message: “This could happen to you, you uppity bitch. Watch your mouth.” The leaking of the celebrity nude photos has the same impetus as revenge porn. As the internet heaves under the weight of freely exposed nipples, violation has become a form of titillation. (If you must see an actress’s breasts, may I recommend watching pretty much any 18-rated movie made this year?) Any expression of women’s sexuality moves them into Camp Slut, where they are fair game for punishment and humiliation.

The final link is online radicalisation. In a 2009 study, the law professor Cass Sunstein explored the role that group psychology plays in the radicalisation of jihadis. “Social networks can operate as polarisation machines because they help to confirm and thus amplify people’s antecedent views,” he wrote. He quoted Marc Sageman on al-Qaeda: “The interactivity among a ‘bunch of guys’ acted as an echo chamber, which progressively radicalised them collectively 
. . . Now the same process is taking place online.” It would be hard to design a better echo chamber than a tightly knit, insular internet forum. We already know that groups tend to drift to extremes, as members move with the prevailing wind (and moderates leave). Add a dash of alienation and a sprinkle of resentment and you have the perfect crucible for extremist behaviour.

Of course, there is a crucial difference between what has happened to Sarkeesian, to Z and to the female celebrities and revenge porn victims and the reaction to more conventional kinds of terrorism. I bet you no one involved in any of the former will be put under a control order or have their passport taken away. It’s only women living in fear, after all. 

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