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
Photo: Getty
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The beggar used to be friendly – now he was ranting at everyone

What was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The first beggar was walking but still wretched. Probably in his early twenties, clearly ravaged by more than just alcohol, he made a beeline for me, as if he had an appointment. He was not to know that I was in a mood from hell, though the look on my face would have told him, if he’d been in any kind of state to register it.

“Excuse me, have you got 10p for…”

“No.” And I walked on.

Why? I am almost invariably a soft touch for this kind of thing. But as I said, I was in the foulest of tempers.

Also, this was East Finchley. For those who do not know London, East Finchley is a northern suburb, which at one end hosts the wealthiest street in the country – the Bishops Avenue, where multimillionaires tear down houses and erect new ones even uglier than those they have replaced – and at the other end a typically seedy, dull collection of terraced houses.

The main supermarket is Budgens, a name so ungainly that it could only have belonged to a real person, either too proud or unimaginative to think of something else.

But what, I asked myself, was someone this wretched doing in East Finchley? And what was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The second beggar, further up the street, I met the next day: much older and clearly mad, rather than chemically poisoned. He asked how I was doing.

“Not so well, as it happens,” I replied.

“Would you like me to say a prayer for you?”

“Why not?” I said, and he placed a clenched fist to my forehead and made a brief incantation, something like an exorcism, and then kissed the large white plastic crucifix hanging from his neck.

I half-expected to feel a jolt of faith, some kind of divine restructuring. This time I gave him money: a pound coin and a 50p coin. But then later I thought: why didn’t I give him more? I’d been doing some tidying earlier and had retrieved a heavy pocketful of change; I could have given him a generous handful.

The third beggar was in Shepherd’s Bush. I knew him from the days when I lived there: a skinny, middle-aged guy who would occasionally stop and rant in a friendly way at me, just sane enough not to ignore. That was ten years ago. Now he was raging at everyone, accusing the teenagers queueing in the kebab shop of being batty boys and saying “bloodclaat” a lot. (Batty boy: homosexual. Bloodclaat: tampon.)

The people he was addressing knew perfectly well what he was saying. They shrugged it off. I got on the bus; so did he, and the whole bus knew about it. There was nothing friendly in him now, and I wondered through which hole in the increasingly threadbare welfare safety net he had been allowed to slip.

That’s it, I thought. I’m getting out of London, its pampered core oblivious to the surrounding anguish. The world in a nutshell. Luckily, my great friend S— had asked if I could cat-sit for her in Brighton. I know her cat, and I know Brighton. Also, I know about a dozen people there who I keep meaning to see, so why not? London was making me ill, and possibly a bad person. So S— invited me down a couple of days before she was due to go on her holidays, and I took the first train I could.

And now I find myself sitting on a sunlounger in a tiny backyard, in a charming house just abutting the North Laine, and the mood is palpably different to the capital’s. It is like a city ought to be: compact, diverse and funky. There is no reek of High Capitalism. It is healthily decadent. It would appear to be full of people who have rejected the idea of London. It still has an enormous number of beggars, but more people were dropping money for them than I ever saw do so in W1, W12 or N2.

So this is what it’s like to fall out of love with the city of one’s birth. What most surprised me was the speed and force with which it happened. I’d made my mind up over a nice lunch that my friend N— was buying me, to cheer me up.

“Don’t you have to stay in London? You know, for book launches and things like that?”

“I don’t go to fucking book launches any more,” I said. I was taken aback by the vigour of my reply. I’m only here for ten days but I have plenty of people to see and dozens of memories, all good, to bump into. I’m already feeling better. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem