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 Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.