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 regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

CREDIT: GETTY
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What has happened to the Liberal Democrats?

As Brexit nears, Vince Cable is struggling – but his is a poisoned inheritance.

During the coalition years, Iain Duncan Smith came up with a plan: if unemployed people went on a demonstration, and the police stopped them for any reason, the officer should pass their names on to the Department for Work and Pensions, which could then freeze their benefits. After all, the minister’s reasoning went, if you had time to protest, you weren’t actively seeking work.

This was just one of the many David Cameron-era Tory proposals that the Liberal Democrats quashed before it ever saw the light of day. Every Lib Dem who worked in the coalition, whether as a minister or a special adviser, has a horror story about a policy they stopped or watered down – and usually the papers to prove it, too.

And so from time to time, Vince Cable’s team needs to respond to a news story by plundering their archives for anti-Tory material. A month or so ago, a former Lib Dem staffer got a phone call from the party’s press operation: could someone answer some questions about their time in government? To which the ex-staffer said: OK, but since you’re calling on a withheld number, you’ll need to get someone to vouch for you.

Perhaps, the former staffer suggested, Phil Reilly, the Lib Dems’ communications chief and a veteran of the party machine, was around? No, came the answer, he has moved on. What about Sam Barratt? Out at a meeting. Was Paul Haydon there? No. Haydon – who worked for the party’s last member of the European parliament, Catherine Bearder, before joining the press office – had moved on, too. After a while, this ex-staffer gave up and put the phone down.

The really troubling thing about this story is that I have heard it three times from three former Liberal Democrat aides. The names change, of course, but the point of the story – that the party machine has been stripped of much of its institutional memory – stays the same. The culprit, according to the staffers who have spoken to me, is Vince Cable. And the exodus is not just from the press office: the party’s chief executive, Tim Gordon, is among the heavyweights to have departed since the 2017 election.

Is this fair? Tim Farron, Cable’s predecessor as party leader, did not share Nick Clegg’s politics, but he recognised that he was inheriting a high-quality backroom team and strove to keep the main players in place. Reilly, who is now at the National Film and Television School, wrote not only Clegg’s concession speech at the general election in 2015, but Farron’s acceptance speech as leader a few months later.

The Liberal Democrats’ curse is that they have to fight for every minute of press and television coverage, so the depletion of their experienced media team is particularly challenging. But their problems go beyond the question of who works at the George Street headquarters in London. As party veterans note, Cable leads a parliamentary group whose continued existence is as uncertain as it was when Paddy Ashdown first became its leader in 1988. The difference is that Ashdown had a gift for identifying issues that the main political parties had neglected. That gave him a greater media profile than his party’s standing warranted.

There is no shortage of liberal and green issues on which Cable could be more vocal: the right to die, for instance, or the legalisation of cannabis. He could even take a leaf from Ashdown’s playbook and set out a bolder approach on income tax than either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. While none of these issues command anything resembling majority support, they are distinctly more popular than the Liberal Democrats. They would also get the party talked about more often. At present, it is being ignored.

These complaints will receive a greater airing if the Lib Dems have a disappointing night at the local elections on 3 May. The party hopes to gain ground in Manchester and retain the Watford mayoralty, but fears it will lose control of the council in Sutton, south-west London. It expects to make little headway overall.

So what else could be done? If you gather three Liberal Democrats in a room, you will hear at least five opinions about what Cable is getting wrong. But the party’s problems neither start nor end with its leader. Cable inherits two difficult legacies: first, thanks to Farron, his party is committed to an all-out war against Brexit. In 2016, that policy successfully gave a shattered party a reason to exist, and some hoped that the Lib Dems could recover ground by wooing disgruntled Remainers. Last year’s general election changed the game, however. The two big parties took their highest share of the vote since 1970, squeezing the Lib Dems to a dozen MPs. That simply doesn’t give the party the numbers to “stop Brexit” – therefore, they feel to many like a wasted vote.

Why not drop the commitment to a second in/out EU referendum? Because one of Farron’s successes was attracting pro-European new members – and thanks to the party’s ultra-democratic constitution, these hardcore Remainers can keep that commitment in place for as long as they wish.

The legacy of coalition is even more difficult to address. In policy terms, the Lib Dems can point to great achievements in government: across every department, there are examples of Duncan Smith-style cruelties that the party prevented.

Yet there is no electoral coalition to be won from voters who are pleased and grateful that hypothetical horrors didn’t come to pass. More than half of voters still regard the Lib Dems’ participation in coalition as a reason not to back the party. That might change as the memories fade, but for now the party’s last spell in government is a significant barrier to gaining the chance to have another one. Even a fresh, young and charismatic leader – with a superb, experienced team – would struggle with such a poisoned inheritance. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum