What it's like to be a victim of Don't Start Me Off's internet hate mob

DSMO, the website that abused Mary Beard, did far more than host threads dedicated to obscenity and offence. Its users took delight in bullying and harrassing their victims.

Note from Helen: Cath Elliott's Blog, An Occupational Hazard, was one of the pieces which inspired me to collect together the experiences of female bloggers about online abuse. I thought Cath was incredibly brave to write about the hatred she was subjected to - particularly since it was deliberately as humiliating and obscene as possible.

Funnily enough, her internet tormentors were from a site called Don't Start Me Off! - which was taken offline last week by its owner after the unwelcome glare of publicity fell on it when Mary Beard spoke out about the thread about her posted there. As Richard White, the site's owner, is now claiming that he has been badly misrepresented, I thought it was important to hear what it was really like to be harassed by DSMO. Here's Cath, in a post originally published on her blog yesterday.

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Richard White, the former site owner and moderator of the now infamous Don’t Start Me Off! claimed in Friday’s Guardian that “we never try to hurt people’s feelings.”

In his sniveling non-apology to Professor Mary Beard, who has recently been the victim of the DSMO hate mongers, White also stated: “We do not go out to be offensive”. He then implied that the only reason Beard had seen the vile comments about her was because she’d obviously gone on to the Internet specifically to look for them.

According to White, the trolls at DSMO were never actually trolls in the true Internety sense of the word because they never went after anyone off the site. They didn’t for instance harass anyone on Twitter or Facebook; they all stayed safely within the confines of the DSMO comment threads.

Well, as I’m sure you’ll understand when you see the nearly two years worth of abuse and harassment I’m about to detail here, I read that Guardian interview with White with a mounting sense of disbelief.

In the piece I posted back in April 2011 - An Occupational Hazard? – in which I detailed the abuse I’d received on that site, I said: “Of course I realise that by posting this piece I’m no doubt giving them enough ammunition to start the whole sick cycle off again, but so be it.” And I was right: that’s exactly what they did. 

In the comment thread under the original piece someone claiming to head the moderating team at DSMO posted what looked very much like an apology: “Firstly I wish to apologise to Cath if some of the comments did offend her” he said, “I, for one, will try to watch out for the comments that upset Cath so much, but such is the nature of some people on the internet I feel we can only do our small part to stop the maliciously intent.”

And yet two months later, in June 2011, just when I thought things were starting to die down over DSMOgate, here’s the comment that Richard ‘Ricardo’ White, the site owner remember, tried to post to this blog:

“Hi Cath I just thought that I’d clarify that the semi-apology on this page didn’t come from me. I think maybe you thought it did. For the avoidance of doubt, I wouldn’t apologise to you if I were tied to a chair and about to be beaten to death by a gaggle of your acolytes, armed to the teeth with heavy duty dildos.

You see, you’re in the criticism business and we all know you just love to dish it out. I’m in that business too and as any primary school child knows, if you dish it out, you have to be prepared to take it too. You seem to be unfamiliar with this concept. I’ve been on the receiving end more times than you could imagine. Rightly so, too.

Unlike you, I don’t expect never to be challenged. Does this bother me? I can honestly say, not one iota. Your brand of hilarious left-wing nincompoopery is absolutely ripe for ridicule. You love to portray yourself as the victim, but you’re nothing of the sort. You and your fellow arch ‘Liberals’ are in truth the least liberal people on earth. You ruthlessly defend your own opinions and will not accept any criticism or suggestion that you may be wrong. Is this the free society you long for? Is freedom in Cathland purely selective? It would seem so. I imagine that, to you, Joseph Stalin was just a cuddly, misunderstood champion of the poor. So here it is, Cath. I don’t give a shit if you’re offended. As long as you’re dishing it out, you’re going to be taking it too, whether you like it, or not. Now, polish those shoes, straighten that blazer and tie and get ready for assembly.”

And here are some more comments Richard White has tried to post to this blog since: these ones are from October 2011:

The two Cath Elliott pages on DSMO were taken down pretty quickly once the site owners realised how much bad publicity they were getting over them. However, in June 2011, after I’d made reference in a Comment is Free piece to the Internet hate I’d been experiencing, they set up another page about me – The DSMO Tucker Jenkins thread.

Here’s a pdf of the cached page that I managed to grab when they took the site down the other day: if you want to read the whole thing you need to start from the bottom of the page and read up.

And here are some of the comments about me from that page and from other pages across the site:

 

Occasionally people would complain that the Cath Elliott pages had been removed. Here’s the moderator’s response to one of those complaints – the moderator of the site that let’s remember again “never set out to hurt anyone” .

They knew I was keeping an eye on the thread because in my contribution to Helen Lewis’s New Statesman piece about online misogyny – “You should have your tongue ripped out”: the reality of sexist abuse online – I made the mistake of quoting one of the comments from the DSMO Tucker Jenkins thread. So, they knew I was reading the comments, they knew I was now aware I was being referred to on the site as Tucker, and rather than take any of that down they instead took great pleasure in the hurt they knew they’d be causing.

During the nearly two years this has been going on I’ve had the occasional Tweet from Richard White. Tweets that have come totally out of the blue and as you can see have been unrelated to anything I’ve been tweeting about: 

And it hasn’t just come from White. Here’s an exchange I had in August last year with @StephenBreen4, who posted on DSMO as ‘ebeneezer‘:

And here’s White’s response when Breen went onto the Tucker Jenkins thread to report back on my sweary response:

Sorry, what was it White said to the Guardian reporter about trolling?

The only decent thing the DSMOers have done for me in the last two years is not take the piss when my mum died. Yes seriously, I’m actually grateful to them for that. Imagine losing one of the most important people in your life, going through all the emotions that comes with grief, and at the same time having to worry that you’re going to click on to the Internet and find some bastard having a ‘joke’ about it.

To sum up then, Richard White is lying in the Guardian when he claims that he never set out to hurt anyone. And he’s lying when he says that it was self-contained, that everyone operated within the site and no-one from it ever trolled anyone.

Oh and finally, I’ve got a message for Richard ‘Ricardo’ White: all those comments you made about me deleting your contributions to my blog because I’m allegedly some kind of anti-free-speech fascist? As you can see, I never deleted anything, I just didn’t publish them until now. Because if there’s one thing I have learned from being a ‘leftie trade union cuntard’ or whatever the expression was, it’s if you ever find yourself the victim of harassment, make sure to keep all the evidence.

Mary Beard on Question Time. Photo: Getty
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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?