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.


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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How “cli-fi” novels humanise the science of climate change

The paradox is that the harder climate-fiction novels try, the less effective they are.

When the Paris UN Climate Change Conference begins at the end of November, the world’s leaders will review the climate framework agreed in Rio in 1992. For well over 20 years, the world has not just been thinking and talking about climate change, it has also been writing and reading about it, in blogs, newspapers, magazines – and in novels.

Climate change fiction is now a recognisable literary phenomenon replete with its own nickname: “cli-fi”. The term was coined in 2007 by Taiwan-based blogger Dan Bloom. Since then, its use has spread: it was even tweeted by Margaret Atwood in 2013:

It is not a genre in the accepted scholarly sense, since it lacks the plot formulas or stylistic conventions that tend to define genres (such as science fiction or the western). However, it does name a remarkable recent literary and publishing trend.

A 21st-century phenomenon?

Putting a number to this phenomenon depends, partly, on how one defines cli-fi. How much of a novel has to be devoted to climate change before it is considered cli-fi? Should we restrict the term to novels about man-made global warming? (If we don’t, we should remember that narratives about global climatic change are as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of the flood.) If we define cli-fi as fictional treatments of climate change caused by human activity in terms of setting, theme or plot – and accept there will be grey areas in the extent of this treatment – a conservative estimate would put the all-time number of cli-fi novels at 150 and growing. This is the figure put forward by Adam Trexler, who has worked with me to survey the development of cli-fi.

This definition also gives us a start date for cli-fi’s history. While planetary climatic change occurs in much 20th-century science fiction, it is only after growing scientific awareness of specifically man-made, carbon-induced climate change in the 1960s and 1970s that novels on this subject emerged. The first is Arthur Herzog’s Heat in 1976, followed by George Turner’s The Sun and the Summer (published in the US as Drowning Towers) in 1987.

At the turn of this century, Maggie Gee and TC Boyle were among the first mainstream authors to publish climate change novels. In this century, we can count Atwood, Michael Crichton, Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ilija Trojanow and Jeanette Winterson as major authors who have written about climate change. The past five years have given us notable examples of cli-fi by emerging authors, such as Steven Amsterdam, Edan Lepucki, Jane Rawson, Nathaniel Rich and Antti Tuomainen.

Creative challenges

Cli-fi is all the more noteworthy considering the creative challenge posed by climate change. First, there is the problem of scale – spatial and temporal. Climate change affects the entire planet and all its species – and concerns the end of this planet as we know it. Novels, by contrast, conventionally concern the actions of individual protagonists and/or, sometimes, small communities.

Added to this is the networked nature of climate change: in physical terms, the climate is a large, complex system whose effects are difficult to model. In socio-cultural terms, solutions require intergovernmental agreement – just what COP21 intends – and various top-down and bottom-up transformations. Finally, there exists the difficulty of translating scientific information, with all its predictive uncertainty, into something both accurate and interesting to the average reader.

Still, cli-fi writers have adopted a range of strategies to engage their readers. Many cli-fi novels could be classified as dystopian, post-apocalyptic or, indeed, both – depicting nightmarish societies triggered by sometimes catastrophic climate events. A future world is one effective way of narrating the planetary condition of climate change.

Some novelists are also careful to underpin their scenarios with rigorous climatic predictions and, in this way, translate science fact into a fictional setting. Kingsolver, who trained as an ecologist, is the best example of this – and Atwood and Robinson are also known for their attempts at making their speculations scientifically plausible. Also, cli-fi novels, particularly those set in the present day or very near future rather than in a dystopian future, tend to show the political or psychological dimensions of living with climate change. Readers can identify with protagonists. To some extent, the global community is represented in fictional everymen or everywomen. Or, often, it is through such characters that science is humanised and its role in combating climate change better understood.

Can cli-fi lead to change?

Could cli-fi affect how we think and act on climate change? The paradox is that the harder cli-fi tries, the less effective it is. Many writers want to inspire change, not insist on it: the line between literature and propaganda is one that most novelists respect. Literature invites us to inhabit other worlds and live other lives. Cli-fi at its best lets us travel to climate-changed worlds, to strive there alongside others and then to return armed with that experience.

In Paris, the UN will seek a global agreement on climate action for the first time in more than 20 years. There is plenty of climate change fiction out there to help provide the mental and psychological space to consider that action.

The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.