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.

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The "people" have spoken on Brexit - listening to them is another matter

The Athenians had another word for them. 

Commentators are right to point to the fury and frustration of the "left behind", who are, everywhere it seems, rebelling against establishments they believe have betrayed them. 

But they may understate the threat we now face. Many of those who voted for Brexit or Donald Trump were not just rejecting economic injustice or "broken politics" but also perhaps the very principles of our system of government. For them, democracy itself may have lost its appeal.

If that is the case, we can’t blame the elites alone. We, "the people", are complicit. In associating democracy almost exclusively with economic advancement, we have begun to forget that it is also, and principally, about shared values, rights and responsibilities. In the UK and the US, voters in their millions have traded one against the other. The citizens of the Netherlands and France may soon do the same.

It's too early to panic. Perhaps we’ll come to see that Brexit was not the calamity some of us predict; perhaps President Trump will turn out to be better than we fear he may be.  

But we would be foolish to ignore the precedents. 

The great democracy of ancient Greece lasted two hundred years. But then, subverted by demagogues and oligarchs, and overwhelmed at last by autocrats, it disappeared from the world for 2,000 years. For all that time, the citizens of today’s democracies were the subjects of tyrants, elites and ideologues but never of themselves.

Modern history provides no greater reassurance. Even when democracy has apparently been secured, it has consumed itself at the ballot box with awful consequences. We are not in that place. But in the UK and the US we have taken a step in its direction.

Rights and responsibilities

The dilemmas we face are as old as democracy itself.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the Athenian statesman Pericles set out for his fellow citizens the precepts of their remarkable democracy. He spoke of the equality of their rights before the law. But he laid particular emphasis on their duties to each other. The word he used for the "socially useless" individuals who placed self above public interest provides the origin of our own word – idiot. 

What would Pericles make of us? Certainly, we remain jealous of our rights, especially when we feel that they are threatened by others. But our preoccupation with personal aspiration has long since eroded our sense of common cause, whether measured by our engagement in civic affairs, our contribution to community life or the civility of our relations with others.

On these grounds, we are doubtless idiots.

A reasonable principle

But for the Athenians, democracy was founded on a third key principle. Alongside rights and responsibilities, they regarded the exercise of reason as indispensable to good politics. As Pericles put it:

“We reach decisions on public policy only after full discussion, believing that sound judgement, far from being impeded by debate, is arrived at only when full information is considered before a decision is made."

Can we honestly claim that in the EU referendum or the US Presidential elections, voters collectively exercised sound judgment based on reliable evidence, rational deliberation and open-minded debate? 

More likely, we recognise that what passed for public discourse throughout both campaigns was poisoned by deceit. The goal of the politicians who set out to mislead was clear. But instead of punishing them for their cynicism, millions suspended their disbelief and voted for them, often quite consciously choosing not to test their instincts against the evidence or their own opinions against other views. As much as they were misled, they also misled themselves. 

This was precisely the concern of democracy’s earliest critics, Plato and Aristotle among them. They worried that the system was inherently unstable not least because the people could be too easily swayed by their emotions and too readily seduced by shallow populists into decisions which were neither reasonable nor just - nor sensible. 

Representation

But if democracy is in danger, where are its defenders? When the people have been so badly misled and when the potential consequences are so serious, who should protect them if not their elected representatives? Isn’t that why in both UK and US we favour a representative system?

At least until now, we have accepted that our elected politicians have a duty not just to check the power of government but also to mitigate public opinion when it undermines sound or just policy. Our legislators should be the servants but not the slaves of their electorates.

The 18th century statesman Edmund Burke went further than most in believing that he would be betraying his constituents were he to sacrifice his judgement to their opinion. When in 1778 he defied them on the issue of free trade, he expressed the hope that if he forfeited their votes:

“It will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong."

He lost his seat but perhaps retained his integrity.

As the democratic franchise was extended, other thinkers worried about the potential for conflict between public opinion and sound policy. In the 1830s, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, a close observer of the developing American democracy, warned against any decision "which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence". John Stuart Mill, in his great essay On Liberty, feared for the rights of minorities when government is mandated by majority opinion.

All these critics favoured government by elites, be they philosopher kings or aristocrats. Our societies are considerably more liberal than those they envisaged, and that is to our credit. But even if we reject their politics, we should acknowledge that recent events have given their concerns new currency.

Whose people?

Indeed, the EU referendum was everything they dreaded - a triumph for unreason, a basis for unsound policy, a threat to democratic principle and, potentially at least, a suppression of the rights of minorities. 

But at the very moment when our tradition of representative democracy should be protecting us, it seems that Parliament’s responsibilities have been radically reinterpreted. The Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that “the British people have spoken” and that, even though she herself doubts its wisdom, their decision cannot be challenged. It has taken the intervention of the High Court to remind her of the role of a sovereign Parliament in the making of public policy.

We know, if only because right-wing newspapers have identified them for us, who are the enemies of the people. But who are those "people” whose judgement the PM regards as sacrosanct? 

Are they “the whole nation” for which she has publicly pledged to govern – or the 37 per cent of the electorate which voted for Brexit? Must the overwhelming majority which did not now remain silent and unrepresented? And in such circumstances is democracy served or subverted?

Too many politicians, cowed by campaigners whose objectives they fear, bullied by press barons they despise and apparently indifferent to their own constitutional responsibilities, have set aside their own judgement of the public good and fooled themselves into believing that when the people speak, their will must be done whatever it is and whatever its consequences.

But ultimately there is no such thing as "the people", only an aggregation of groups and individuals with a plurality of beliefs, opinions and interests. Talking about them in the definite article obliterates those differences. Precisely because it is so definite, it is intolerant, oppressive and undemocratic.

Back from the brink

Now, more than ever, we need parties and politicians with the courage not just to listen to but also to lead public opinion, and to stand against it when they believe it wrong. 

More than ever, we need a media which acknowledges its responsibility to inform as well as to influence, and show a far greater commitment to the truth.

More than ever, we the people should recognise that a strong and healthy democracy demands more of us than we seem prepared to give.

Democracies have come and gone – in ancient Greece and modern Europe. If ours is to prevail, we must both individually and collectively acknowledge our responsibilities as well as our rights and, critically, we must restore the importance of reason – and reasonableness – to the ways in which we deliberate, debate and decide.

As it is, we have already entered an age of unreason. Unless we come to our senses, it’s impossible to predict when or where it will end. 

Peter Bradley is director of Speakers’ Corner Trust and a former Labour MP.