SXSW Holds Online Harassment Summit

Over the weekend South By Southwest hosted the Online Harassment Summit it created to allay the outrage over a decision made last fall to cancel a pair of gaming panels, one essentially about Gamergate, the other about anti-harassment efforts in gaming.

Here are a series of excerpts from news reports about the event

The atmosphere at the summit matched its sobering content. Security was much tighter than the typical SXSW panels. It including bag checks upon entering the building, policemen outside of bathrooms and panels, and constant reminders not to leave bags unattended or they would be “confiscated and destroyed.”

Each session began with a reading of SXSW’s code of conduct — something that isn’t done at other panels.

It painted a stark picture of the day-to-day fear that online harassment victims live in.

Held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, it was also distinctly separate (across the Colorado River) from Startup Village, the Austin Convention Center, and popular bars and restaurants where companies host their festivities.

That’s perhaps one of the reasons why the event was sparsely attended. It was hard not to notice more empty seats than people….


Digital Sistas executive officer Shireen Mitchell and Giant Spacekat co-founder Brianna Wu speak at SXSW on Saturday in Austin, Tex. (Brian Fung / The Washington Post)

Digital Sistas executive officer Shireen Mitchell and Giant Spacekat co-founder Brianna Wu speak at SXSW on Saturday in Austin, Tex. (Brian Fung / The Washington Post)

Nobody made a scene. And nobody wanted to talk about Gamergate….

The show of force aimed to ease concerns about a potential physical confrontation between some of the day’s high-profile panelists — such as game developers Brianna Wu and Randi Harper — and their biggest critics. But their opponents stayed away, and the panelists studiously skirted the caustic online battles that gave rise to that particular event in the first place.

“I don’t want to make this a Gamergate panel,” Wu said in her opening remarks.

Other session moderators seemed to take a similar cue, steering clear of any specific mentions of Gamergate. And the result was a day-long series of talks that were less about the problem of online harassment than the emerging solutions to it.

Wu is among the women in the gaming industry who have faced multiple death threats and harassment in the Gamergate controversy.

What the Online Harassment Summit lacked in headline-grabbing conflict, it made up for with compelling voices that saw tech, policy, and academic experts finding common ground on the subject of antagonistic and threatening online speech. At its best, the results included informed analysis, mountains of data, and calls to specific action—all while trying to balance both free and responsible speech with paradigms that looked beyond the United States’ model.

“We represent ourselves as a target”

The day’s highlight came courtesy of Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), who sponsored a Congressional bill in November that would criminalize the act of “swatting,” or inciting police responses under false pretenses. That activity has spiked in recent years thanks to masked Internet telephony, and Clark was joined in her panel by someone with plenty of first-hand knowledge about the damage swatting can do: Sergeant BA Finley of the Johns Creek, Georgia police department.

Finley recalled a recent story in which a home in his jurisdiction was the target of a swatting attack—and its instigator turned out to be a British Columbia teenager who was subsequently convicted of 23 counts of swatting across the United States and Canada. Finley joined that teen’s pursuit after responding to a false report of a woman and two children having been murdered in the home, and he described that account at length—including meeting the parents in question and describing “the fear and panic” he saw on their faces.

Finley next confirmed work on other swatting cases, two of which have since resulted in convictions. The officer said he stood with Clark on her work to broaden local police forces’ access to better tools to fight such Internet-enabled crimes.

“When we speak against [online harassment] and try to make change on it, we represent ourselves as a target,” Finley told the crowd. “But someone has to do it. We’re not going to take any more of it. I’m going to find you and I’m going to stop you. It’s more than a prank. It’s more than a joke.”

…After Clark recalled her own recent swatting story, she admitted one of the biggest educational gaps to address is among her Congressional colleagues, who “look at me when I use terms like ‘swatting’ and ‘doxing’ like I’ve lost my mind.” Clark compared their dismissive responses to years of legislative silence about how police should respond to issues of domestic violence. To paraphrase their responses, Clark said, “This is an online problem. We really can’t do anything about it, it happens out there on the Internet, we don’t know how to address that, to deal with something that isn’t potentially imminent.”

…And if SXSW is taking harassment more seriously, it’s not clear that its attendees are. Despite heavy promotion, the summit itself was a ghost town. It was held in a trio of frigid ballrooms at the Hyatt Regency ?— a long way across the river from the Austin Convention Center, where most SXSW events are hosted. None of the panels I attended were full, or even close to full. Most drew between 30 and 40 attendees, and usually about 70 percent of those people were women. At least half of the attendees were reporters.

Soraya Chemaly of Women’s Media Center remarked toward the end of a panel about women in the media: “It’s mainly women in this room. Probably we don’t need this information. If we had named this panel ‘The Freedom of Expression on the Internet,’ which is what it is, the room would probably be more 50-50.”

In a discussion about how harassment can silence diverse voices online and even end careers, She Knows Media’s Elisa Camahort Page argued that law enforcement still doesn’t understand how fundamental online platforms are to many people’s careers. The purpose of the panel was initially to highlight the bottom line for brands — dollars lost when advertisers don’t want to appear beside racial epithets, and users lost when sites sacrifice trust for growth — but the conversation quickly turned to individuals. Panelists emphasized that individuals usually don’t have the resources to fight harassment at scale, and that the frequent, callous suggestion that society seems to make to these individuals is “just don’t go online.”

…Several panelists also expressed disappointment that the existing research on online harassment insufficiently captures the reality of having more than one oppressed identity. Women of color, for example, who experience racialized and gendered harassment, do not yet have a body of research dedicated to their experiences. Jamia Wilson of Women, Action, and the Media said that women of color and transgender women had to wait longer to get a response after reporting abuse, and she expressed hope that more research would be conducted soon by her organization and by others.

…A dearth of diversity in tech was also singled out as a root cause of abuse, with Jamia Wilson commenting that “the people who build online tools inform the tools.” Katherine Cross of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York echoed this sentiment in a separate panel, saying, “it was largely men who designed these platforms, and they didn’t see these problems coming. Now they have to build backwards. New platforms should be built with community management in mind from the start.”

The tool on everyone’s minds seemed to be Twitter, which Cross referred to as “one of the most addictive games ever made.” Caroline Sinders, a design researcher for IBM Watson, characterized Twitter as a dangerous place because it’s a tool and content platform that people often mistake for a community. “How do you have community ownership of a tool that you’re not supposed to own, that you’re just supposed to exist in?” she asked.

As part of a panel discussion called “Is a Safer, Saner and Civil Internet Possible?” Ms. [Brianna] Wu said she has had over 200 death threats in the past few years.

She criticized some of the technology companies that acted as meeting hubs for GamerGate supporters — particularly YouTube and Reddit, the online message board — for not doing enough to take down offensive content when it was posted. Reddit does not require users to register real names or any other identifying information to use the site. It is a regular congregation spot for GamerGate activists.

“I can’t say this clearly enough: Reddit is failing women in every marginalized community spectacularly,” Ms. Wu said….

But beyond general harassment, a recurring theme across all the sessions — told through chilling anecdotes and statistics — was the extent to which online hatred is disproportionately directed toward women.

….Power players from companies like Facebook , Google and Cisco shared the stage with victims like Wu.

The volume of harassment — from bullying to revenge porn — is higher than ever, making it hard for platforms to respond quickly. Facebook head of policy management Monika Bickert said the company receives more than one million reports of violations from users every day — which it manually vets to determine their validity.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, told CNNMoney that companies like Facebook are dealing with an incredibly high volume of messages, more than 4 billion daily.

Greenblatt, who previously worked as a special assistant to President Barack Obama, said he’s been the recipient of hateful tweets due to his role at ADL.

As for the summit, Greenblatt said the fact that key players gathered to spread awareness of the issue of harassment is a positive sign.

“It’s a first start,” he added. “[But] we’re certainly not where we need to be.”

[Thanks to Martin Morse Wooster for the story.]

15 thoughts on “SXSW Holds Online Harassment Summit

  1. The apparent turnout is disappointing, but I’m glad they did this. Wonder if they will post videos of the panels?

  2. From USA Today:

    Its location was both literally out of the way and sent the figurative message, however intentional or not, that these conversations were not part of the regular discussions at the conference.

    Those who made it to the summit were subjected to security measures that are unusual for SXSW, and didn’t happen elsewhere at the festival, including the Brown talk.

    In fact, the first time I ever had my bag checked at any SXSW event was Friday, before President Obama’s keynote, and the second was Saturday, before being allowed into the harassment summit. (The second bag check was even more thorough.)

    Security officers were conspicuously posted, and we were greeted with signage announcing that the Hyatt didn’t allow concealed weapons and informing us of the summit “code of conduct.”

    This was all very abnormal for the massive conference, where people typically move freely from panel to panel and venue to venue throughout the day.

    Before entering any panel room, I was warned to keep my bag with me and that anyone’s badge could be removed at the festival’s discretion. Each session opened with a “housekeeping” statement asking participants “to act responsibly and treat each other with respect.”

    Sure, the festival’s organizers needed to beef up security so we could have this conversation. The alternate approach, which it tried before getting flamed by panelists and media outlets, had been to close down the conversation after anonymous individuals used the threat of violence.

    But the overall effect was disquieting.

    I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I opened a door with a sign that informed me that if I left to stand outside in the sun, the door would lock and I’d have to go through the full security rigamarole again. The message the festival sent — not the panelists or the fascinating discussion around a critical issue in both online and real-world culture — was “You are the problem” not “We are trying to keep you safe.”

    I let the door close.”

  3. I wonder if their motivation for the heightened security was to be able to safely ignore at least some types of (e.g.) bomb threat that they’d otherwise have to respond to by evacuating. If so, it’s a bit more understandable but they ought to have been clearer about their reasons.
    (It’s quite sad that bomb threats are one of the first things I thought about in relation to this sort of event)

  4. @Mark, possibly. It does leave an impression that this was a lip service effort to dodge some of the criticism that they got though.

  5. I don’t know that you can call incurring the cost of extra security and facilities simply “lip service effort”. I’m just nit picking word choice, though. Not streaming panels, combined with forcing interested attendees to basically leave the conference in order to attend these panels certainly suggests that the organizers were more interested in avoiding a repeat of last year’s criticism than in actually including this sort of content. The heightened security, on it’s own, may make sense, but in concert with these other deviations from the rest of the SXSW experience, the message is pretty clear.

  6. As far as extra security goes, well, would you want The Phantom or someone like him to show up at an event like this and not be searched?

  7. The overall impression doesn’t come over well, no. At least it sounds like the actual panels were able to cover a lot of ground. This implies to me that this issue can be and should be tackled in mainstream programming in similar events.

  8. I’ve attended a con where Brianna Wu spoke at a panel. The amount of additional security and issues the con was hit with due to the ongoing threats on her life changed the feel of the panel. We weren’t searched but security was at all doors. When I later found out GGs were on Twitter making threats of showing up you bet I was thankful for the minor inconvenience. It also gave me a glimpse of what life in a day is for her.

    I’m imagining a bunch of targets in one place. I believe SXSW could have handled it better. But as an audience member I’d be thankful for all the extra security steps. There is no way to know from the outside who is going to be the one pulling a gun or a bomb out. Most likely they will look harmless and like your next door neighbor. If that weren’t the case finding murderers, rapists, and other criminals would be much easier.

  9. Mike: You might want to do a search on SXWS on the page; there are at least a couple of places you used that instead of SXSW.


    I don’t see official videos for this panel in their list, but found these:

    First panel:
    Subsequent panels:

    “Few attendees” — pictures of the audience

    (Hope this doesn’t post as messed up as it is in the preview; can’t seem to fix it.)

  11. More security is a good idea. But honestly, holding it in another place 20 min. away and not streaming it looks like they made the least possible token effort. “We gave you panels, what more do you want? Equality?”

  12. As others have said, security is god. But holding it so far away that nobody can attend? that really seems like they’re grudging about dealing with the issue.

  13. I’d guess, based on her requirements at prior events, that both the location and not being streamed were Brianna Wu’s choice.

  14. I’d guess not, since Brianna called them out for the location. Her tweet is right there. Also, if you read the article, the panelists didn’t know it wasn’t streamed. Could someone be blaming the victim? Gosh, that NEVER happens with gators.

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