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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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.