Dear The Internet, This Is Why You Can't Have Anything Nice

Anita Sarkeesian's project to expose stereotypes in video games attracts a maelstrom of hate.

Something wonderful happened on the internet this week. And something horrible happened at the same time.

A Californian blogger, Anita Sarkeesian, launched a Kickstarter project to make a web video series about "tropes vs women in videogames". Following on from her similar series on films, it aimed to look at women as background decoration, Damsels in Distress, the Sexy Sidekick and so on. Her pitch is here:

 

 

Sarkeesian was after $6,000 to cover the cost of researching the topic, playing all kinds of awful games, and producing the videos. Seems reasonable, doesn't it? Even if you don't like the idea - or don't believe that women are poorly represented in games (in which case, you would be wrong) - then isn't it fine for other people to give money to something they believe in?

Except some kind of Bastard Klaxon went off somewhere in the dank, moist depths of the internet. An angry misogynist Bat Signal, if you will. (It looks like those charming chaps at 4Chan might have had something to do it.)

In Sarkeesian's own words:

The intimidation and harassment effort has included a torrent of misogyny and hate speech on my YouTube video, repeated vandalizing of the Wikipedia page about me, organized efforts to flag my YouTube videos as "terrorism", as well as many threatening messages sent through Twitter, Facebook, Kickstarter, email and my own website.  These messages and comments have included everything from the typical sandwich and kitchen "jokes" to threats of violence, death, sexual assault and rape.  All that plus an organized attempt to report this project to Kickstarter and get it banned or defunded.

Let's take a look at that Wikipedia page, shall we?

As the pixellated pinkness might suggest, that's what tabloids call a "sex act" happening in the top corner. There are also references to Sarkeesian being "of Jewish descent", an "entitled nigger" and having a "masters degree in Whining" (because why stick to one prejudice, when you can have them all?) More than a dozen IP addresses contributed to this vandalism before the page was locked.

Meanwhile, her YouTube video attracted more than 5,000 comments, the majority of them of a, shall we say, unsupportive nature. The c-word got a lot of exercise, as did comments about her personal appearance, and a liberal sprinkling of threats of violence. 

Sarkeesian archived a picture of the abuse, and you can find it here. I'm sorry to subject you to it, but I think it's important that you see the kind of stuff you can get called for the crime of Being A Woman On The Internet. Shall we play sexism bingo? Here goes:

Tits or GTFO

You're a bolshevik feminist Jewess

LESBIANS: THE GAME is all this bitch wants

Why do you put on make-up, if everything is sexism? ... You are a hypocrite fucking slut.

Would be better if she filmed this in the kitchen.

I'll donate $50 if you make me a sandwich

... and so it goes on. The only light relief is this one, because I don't think this is quite the threat this chap thinks it is:

Sarkeesian decided to leave the comments on her video, as proof that such sexism exists. I think it's important that she did, because too often the response to stories like this, "Come on, it can't be that bad". There are two reasons for this: first, that if you don't experience this kind of abuse, it's difficult to believe it exists (particularly if you're a man and this just isn't part of your daily experience). Secondly, because news reports don't print the bad words. We've got into a weird situation where you have to get a TV channel controller to sign off a comedian using the word "cunt" after 9pm, but on the internet, people spray it round like confetti. We read almost-daily reports of "trolls" being cautioned or even jailed, but often have no idea what they've said. 

This story should be shared for several reasons. The first is that a horrible thing happened to Anita Sarkeesian. She did nothing to deserve the torrent of abuse, and the concerted attempts to wreck her online presence. It's not the first time this happened: Bioware's Jennifer Hepler was similarly hounded out of town for expressing some fairly innocuous statements about videogames. Every time this happens, more women get the message: speak up, and we will come for you. We'll try to ruin your life, tear you apart, for having an opinion.

The second reason this story deserves wider attention is that in Britain, a law is being debated which will encourage service providers to identify internet trolls, without their victims having to resort to costly legal action. Until now, the perception has been that you can say anything you like on the internet, without any consequences. Recent cases, such as that of Liam Stacey (jailed for mocking footballer Fabrice Muamba) show that is getting less and less true.

A man who targeted Louise Mensch was yesterday given a suspended sentence, and banned from contacting a list of celebrities. Few papers reported Frank Zimmerman's full remarks, with the notable exception of The Guardian: they included a reference to the film Sophie's Choice, in which a mother is forced to choose which of her children dies, and the following: "We are Anonymous and we do not like rude cunts like you and your nouveau riche husband Peter Mensch...  So get off Twitter. We see you are still on Twitter. We have sent a camera crew to photograph you and your kids and we will post it over the net including Twitter, cuntface. You now have Sophie's Choice: which kid is to go. One will. Count on it cunt. Have a nice day."

We can argue all day about the sentence handed to Liam Stacey, but Frank Zimmerman made an unequivocal threat. He no more deserves anonymity than those who targeted Anita Sarkeesian with rape and death threats. But, of course, they will never be found out.

I said at the top of this blog post that something wonderful happened on the internet this week, at the same time as something awful. You'll be pleased to know that Anita Sarkeesian's Kickstarter project has gained 2,301 backers and a total of $55,671 at the time of writing. It's more than enough for her to make a whole series of shows about tropes and women in games, and luckily, she still plans to do so despite all the abuse

I am certainly not the first woman to suffer this kind of harassment and sadly, I won’t be the last. But I’d just like to reiterate that this is not a trivial issue. It can not and should not be brushed off by saying, “oh well that’s YouTube for you“, “trolls will be trolls” or “it’s to be expected on the internet”. These are serious threats of violence, harassment and slander across many online platforms meant to intimidate and silence. And its not okay. Again, don't worry, this harassment will never stop me from making my videos! Thank you for all your support!

Anita Sarkeesian in her Kickstarter video.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

Credit: Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images
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UK is EU’s “most immigration-friendly country”, says Michael “Take Back Control” Gove

Is this utopian Britain, with its arms outstretched to hopefuls around the globe, ringing any bells? 

Michael Gove has told Radio 4’s Today programme that Brexit had helped to make the UK the most immigration-friendly country in the EU. You read that right, yes.

The Environment Secretary and arch Brexiteer said: “Something very striking was reported by the European Union, actually, a little earlier this year, which is that of all the countries in the EU, Britain is the country with the warmest attitude to migration from outside the EU. We’re the most immigration-friendly country in the EU…” He claimed Brexit had helped with this, arguing that people were more comfortable with immigration now they knew they could control it.

Is this utopian Britain, with its arms outstretched to hopeful immigrants around the globe, ringing any bells? No, me neither. One must pay at least some lip service to the real world, I suppose. Let’s run through the reality of the situation.

During the referendum campaign, Gove made a speech in which he suggested Turkey could join the EU by 2020 and warned that, as a result, millions more people could move to the UK, which he claimed would be “unsustainable” for the NHS. At the time, Remain campaigners accused him of Ukip-style dog whistling, while the prospect of EU membership for Turkey had long been dismissed. 

Gove followed this up by pledging a tough new immigration system, and demanding immigrants speak “good English”, a statement that at least one friend of Gove's interpreted as a linguistic scare tactic.

There were record levels of hate crimes in the months after the referendum: race and religious hate crimes rose by 41 per cent after the vote. Islamophobic and xenophobic headlines multiplied: “Immigration is placing a strain on the NHS”, “Migration ‘made it harder for the young to buy homes’”. Anonymous letters were sent round across the country encouraging people to take part in “Punish a Muslim Day”, listing violent acts along with a number of points for performing them.

The Windrush scandal, which could leave an estimated 50,000 facing the risk of deportation despite having lived in the UK legally for decades, is a prime example of how large groups of people played by the book can still be affected by changing immigration policies (sound familiar, EU citizens?). May initially refused to intervene after one man’s uncertain immigration status left him unable to access cancer treatment on the NHS, despite living in the UK for 44 years.

Of course, this ill-feeling (and behaviour) towards migrants hasn’t just been restricted to non-EU nationals. Net migration of EU nationals to Britain is at its lowest level for five years, with murmurs of a so-called Brexodus. There was a 96 per cent drop in EU nurses registering to work in Britain since the vote. There are myriad examples of Poles being physically attacked, targeted by racist leaflets, and told to “go home”.

It’s hard to square all this with the government’s “Britain is open” niceties. But this post-Brexit outpouring of xenophobia didn’t spring from nowhere, it’s been bubbling under the surface for a long time.

It was in 2012 that Theresa May first spoke of her “hostile environment” strategy that is coming back to bite her. Polly Mackenzie, a former policy special adviser to Nick Clegg in the coalition, wrote in The Times today that May sent the Home Office on an "endless, tireless hunt for any policy change that would reduce immigration, no matter the economic, social or human cost."

“I remember warning endlessly and fruitlessly that these changes would adversely affect anyone with dark skin or a foreign-sounding name,” she wrote, claiming there was a culture in the Home Office that "immigrants and criminals are basically the same". Wow.

In the bizarre way that only politicians do, the Conservatives have pushed both pro- and anti-immigration rhetoric simultaneously, with no sense of contradiction. Only yesterday did Boris Johnson tell The Telegraph that the UK should make the “liberal” case for immigration, warning “a society not open to talent will die”. While it’s not the first time Johnson has spoken out about the benefits of immigration, he seemed to quitely toss this rhetoric out the window during the referendum campaign, as he blamed EU immigration for driving down wages, putting pressure on the NHS and restricting access to education.

Gove’s claim that all is rosy when it comes to the UK’s attitude to immigration is dangerous. It ignores the plight of thousands upon thousands of people living in post-Brexit Britain as well as a country struggling to deal with its xenophobia past and present.

Now, you’d already have been forgiven for suspecting that Michael Gove might secretly be an alien (see this video of him clapping for further evidence). But if you were looking for further proof, consider his answer when asked to describe the government’s approach to immigration this morning: “Positive, welcoming, liberal, forward-looking.”. Err, what planet is he on?