Preaching to the Choir: SXSW’s Online Harassment Summit


Last October, SXSW cancelled two panel discussions, one on overcoming harassment in the gaming industry, the other on integrity in gaming journalism. The existence of the panels in question ignited the Gamergate community, and they were removed after SXSW staff received numerous threats of onsite violence. But following outcry from the public and media giants Buzzfeed and Vox threatening to pull out of the conference, SXSW reinstated the panels, this time as part of a larger exploration of the the internet’s darker side.

Saturday’s Online Harassment Summit convened media activists, representatives from technology companies, and scholars to weigh in on creating safer spaces online. Over the course of the day, participants could attend 15 panels with topics ranging from how to catch a troll, to bullying youth on the internet, to the economics of online harassment.

The tone of the event was set immediately with heightened security and a Code of Conduct pasted on the entrance and read aloud at the start of every panel encouraging “engaging and robust dialogue,” but banning behavior deemed “inappropriate, off-topic, or disruptive.” Located nearly a mile away from other SXSW events, the summit felt separate from festivities across the river, perhaps a reason for the overall light attendance.

The road to the summit has an untold story, according to Shireen Mitchell, founder of Digital Sisters and speaker at one of the first panels, Is a Safer, Saner and Civil Internet Possible?. The panel touched on the unpleasant realities that many women face when speaking out online.

Besides the two panels that were originally cancelled, Mitchell’s panel on online harassment was among several others that were eliminated. She was also harassed by the Gamergate community. “The attack wasn’t just nasty comments,” she said. “I was constantly being hacked everyday. I was constantly being threatened.”

Brianna Wu, head of development at Giant Spacekat, and moderator of the panel described her own experiences with online harassment. She recounted being directly targeted by Gamergate and receiving over 200 death threats, showing attendees a photo of a masked man who threatened to “put a drill through her skull until it was the last thing she felt.” Wu looks to powerful platforms like Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter to prevent this type of harassment and protect its most vulnerable groups.

But how do we even begin to define hate speech and harassment? That is what panelists grappled with in another session titled How Far Should We go to Protect Hate Speech Online. “My definition — it is speech that is fully protected by the constitution, but you don’t think it should be,” Lee Rowland, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said at the start of the panel.

In attendance were Monika Bickert, head of global product policy at Facebook and Juniper Downs, senior counsel at Google and public policy lead for YouTube. Both spoke about the challenges maintaining and monitoring content for Facebook’s 1.6 billion and YouTube’s one billion unique users. “People in the room have different ideas about what hate speech should be,” Bickert said. “When you think about the different cultures that are represented in the Facebook community, imagine there’s a broad spectrum of ideas about what is okay and what’s not okay.”

“Crafting policy is tricky because we’re global. The really hard part is figuring out how we can enforce those policies when we receive more than one million reports per day of violations on Facebook,” she continued.

One of the most popular events at the summit was the Women in the Media and Online Harassment panel. “I think it’s interesting because it’s mainly women in this room and we probably don’t need this information. And that’s a huge part of the problem. If we had named this panel the ‘freedom of expression on the internet’, the room would probably be more 50/50,” said Soraya Chemaly, director of the Women’s Media Center.

The panel featured women leaders in activism journalism and technology and the unique challenges they face online. On the panel was Wendy Davis, a politician and former candidate for Governor of Texas. She discussed the role online harassment and sexualization played during her campaign and how her experience relates to many young women today.

“I’m a public figure that’s had 15 years of public service and I’ve developed an unbelievably thick skin,” Davis said. “I think about a 13-year-old girl or a 15-year-old who may be receiving [harassment] not anonymously as I often was, but from people within her friendship circle, her peer group. I can’t even imagine how difficult facing that kind of critique and criticism must be.”

The Profiling a Troll: Who They Are and Why They Do It panel offered a glimpse behind who exactly perpetuates hate speech and what drives them to harass others online. A mix of media, culture, and personality influences those who troll according to Joseph Reagle, assistant professor at Northeastern University.

Oren Segal, director at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) outlined the parallels between his experience monitoring ideological extremists and trolling and ways to address this behavior. “We’ve always been an organization that says we combat bad speech with good speech…The other element we see is it’s incredibly important to expose bad speech. By exposing people who are doing wrong, you use that as an opportunity to educate people,” he said.

But when asked by an audience member about more active solutions to address the root causes of behavior that drives harassment online, Reagle acknowledged a stronger need to shift responsibility away from victims of harassment.

Panelists explored the idea of fighting harassment from the inside through building communities in online spaces, in one of the final panels, The Frontline Defense: Community Managers. “We’re all in this space together,” Elizabeth Plank, senior producer at Vox said, to an audience of less than 20. “It’s up to the platform to create and defend what they want that platform to be for.”

While the summit provided a unique opportunity to discuss these issues and potential solutions, Plank and others wondered if the message didn’t quite reach the people who needed to hear it most. “I’m happy South By [Southwest] created this summit, but I’m worried that we’re just talking to each other,” Plank said. “I think we need to talk across fields.”