Anyone looking to support women suffering from harassment online has a surprisingly simple place to start, says Anita Sarkeesian, founder of the web video series Feminist Frequency. "One of the most radical things you can do is to actually believe women when they talk about their experiences," Sarkeesian told the audience today at XOXO Festival in Portland. It's radical in part because of misinformation campaigns organized against high-profile women that accuse them of making up the threats against them — and it's an issue that Sarkeesian has recent experience dealing with.
"Actually believe women when they talk about their experiences."
Sarkeesian was driven out of her home last month in the wake of death threats that followed the posting of the latest in her series Tropes vs. Women. The series, which was funded through Kickstarter, critiques the way mass-market video games often portray women as helpless victims and sex objects who lack the dimensions and agency of their male counterparts. It generated a flood of insults and violent threats against Sarkeesian from gamers who are threatened by her calls for more equal treatment of the sexes in their depictions in popular culture.
But while the threats have garnered the most attention, Sarkeesian says she is also plagued by two more subtle forms of harassment. There's online impersonation, in which trolls create lookalike accounts for her on Facebook and Twitter and have her say things that play on the fears of her misogynist critics. And there are conspiracy theories that accuse her of making up the threats against her to garner attention. Both tactics serve to reinforce Sarkeesian's most violent critics' perceptions of her work, and have resulted in the escalation of threats against her, she says. "Falsehoods about me are initially pushed by detractors who use them to post to 4Chan and Reddit to rally more people to the cause," Sarkeesian said. "It's bouncing from Twitter to Tumblr to Facebook to YouTube and back again. Once the cascade reaches a critical mass, it no longer matters what the facts are. It becomes a viral meme."
Sarkeesian was making her first public appearance since being forced out of her home last month, and she received a hero's welcome at XOXO, a festival dedicated to celebrating independent makers of culture. Taking the stage to a standing ovation, Sarkeesian delivered talk that wouldn't have been out of place on Feminist Frequency. Over 20 minutes, she coolly analyzed the strategies that trolls have used to harass her, rooting their fears in a gaming culture that is slowly changing to improve the depiction of women. "The perpetrators do not see themselves as perpetrators at all," she said. "They see themselves as noble warriors." To preserve that view, she said, they deny that women are being threatened at all. "We are blamed for the abuse we receive and regularly told that we are either asking for it or inventing it entirely," she said.
Sarkeesian's talk suggested that there are no easy solutions to the harassment that she and others have faced. But in the current environment, even accepting that it takes place helps to combat the spread of misinformation, she said. Sarkeesian left the stage to a second standing ovation.