Anita Sarkeesian and the gamification of misogyny

How internet communities encourage bad behaviour online.

Anita Sarkeesian, the videogame critic who attracted an online hate campaign - and a game about beating her up - after she launched a Kickstarter project (I like writing it like that, to emphasise the madness of it) spoke at a TEDx event organised by the Paley Center for Media.

You can watch the video here; it's around 10 minutes long:

I've taken screenshots of two of her points. The first is some of the harassment, because I think people need to know that when we talk about "trolling" or online abuse, we're often not just talking about a few tasteless comments. Special shoutout to James Anderson, who used his Facebook profile to LOL: "Wouldn't it be funny if five guys raped her right now :D". 

The second is what happened to her online presence. You can see the vandalisation of her Wikipedia page, the attacks on her website, the attempts to access her Twitter, Google and Formspring accounts and the attempt to have her social media profiles flagged as spam. In the top right is someone claiming to be from 4Chan offering up her phone, email and address, adding "this is going to be fun!"

But the most interesting aspect of her talk is the way that she interprets the harassment itself as a game. There is an enemy - her - who must be defeated - by getting her to stop making feminist videos. There are forums dedicated to the cause, where members slap each other on the back for each latest bit of bullying. And there are rewards - in the form of peer approval - for being the worst, most daring member of the group. 

As Sarkeesian put it: "This social aspect is a powerful motivating factor which provides incentives for players to participate and to escalate the attacks by earning the praise and approval of their peers. . . Players earn 'internet points' for increasingly brazen attacks. "

That echoes what I was told recently by Tom Postmes, a researcher studying "trolling" and online culture at the University of Groningen. He emphasised that although anonymity is often blamed for bad behaviour online, it's not as simple as that. He told me:

It is clear that there is a social dynamic amongst trollers. They like to show off their work. For example, if anonymity for them was vitally important they would not use a pseudonym consistently through time and have multiple identities. It’s very hard to know but research suggests that people with particular kinds of online identities tend to stick to them for very long times. These people, they bask in the effects of their online contributions.

They take some pride in their work and they obviously also think it’s quite funny to do these kinds of things. There’s some kind of pride they derive from it within their community. It’s a very loose community of course, it’s not a clearly defined group. They do not hang out in one place. Nevertheless, they do comment on each others’ work, they look out for it. They clearly identify with some kind of common style of interacting online.

In Sarkeesian's case, her abusers have effectively "gamified" trolling. It's like when a group of kids gather, and they talk about doing something stupid, and no one is really sure whether or not to do it, and then the most extreme member of the group does. (And then everybody looks up to them, and realises that even if they think it was a stupid thing to do, there are no points to be earned for being a square.) Except because of the connectivity of the internet, the size of the group is vastly larger, and so the extremity of behaviour is further from the centre. Terry Pratchett put the idea beautifully: "The IQ of a mob is the IQ of its dumbest member divided by the number of mobsters."

As Sarkeesian notes, to her abusers "it's a game"; to the victim, it's anything but. 

The first time I wrote about Sarkeesian, I noted that there were two outcomes to her Kickstarter launch: one horrific, the other wonderful. (She got abused; she got funded.) It's the same again now: in the video, she says that she had hoped to make five "Tropes vs Women" videos; thanks to the extra funding, she is making 13, plus a classroom curriculum that educators can use for free. 

And the horrific bit? Look under that YouTube video:

WHY ARE COMMENTS TURNED OFF? This talk comes from a woman who was targeted by an online hate campaign. Predictably, the same campaign has targeted this talk, so comments have been shut down. If you'd like to comment constructively on this video, please share on your own social networks.

Sigh.

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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder