Jennifer Lawrence. Photo: Getty
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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.

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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. 

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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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era