The origin story of SXSW's Online Harassment Summit is not a pretty one, and it informed the tone of the event months ahead of time. SXSW canceled a panel called "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Gaming" in October after it received "numerous threats of on-site violence." An outcry from the panelists and other activists, paired with planned boycotts from the media and other sponsors, led SXSW to change course a week later and reinstate the panel. The festival also announced an expansive, day-long summit on issues of abuse online and invited several public figures who had been vocal about the cancellation, including Congresswoman Katherine Clark (D-MA), former Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, and game developer Brianna Wu, to speak.
That wasn't enough for some of the scheduled panelists. Randi Harper, founder of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative and one of the panelists of "Level Up," told Recode at the time that she had "no confidence in [SXSW's] ability to run this summit while keeping panelists safe and providing for a productive conversation." In the end, "Level Up" did take place (though SXSW cancelled the livestream of the event without explanation) and security at the summit was extremely thorough. My bag was checked four times over the course of the day, security guards were posted inside each ballroom, and panelists read warnings that anything left behind in the room would be considered a suspicious object and destroyed by the Austin police.
sxsw made good on promises of extra security
The day of panels, despite all the tension surrounding them, was ultimately a good step. It showed that the festival cares about online harassment and wants to take action to reduce it. The organizers' quick apology, dizzyingly fast development of 15 harassment-focused panels, and promise of heightened security all suggest as much. But panelists at the summit recognized the limits of panel discussions. The common thread across the day's events was a weary acceptance that panelists were preaching to the choir. Whether they were talking about law enforcement, product tools, community management, or the media, speakers made it clear that online harassment is merely a symptom of a bigger problem.
That problem is two-fold: a world that discounts the experiences of women, and a culture that still doesn't recognize the internet as a place where people suffer meaningful abuse.
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."
"it's mainly women in this room. probably we don't need this information"
All this sounds a little defeatist. Clearly we're not going to correct systemic cultural problems in a weekend — at least not the 50 or so of us who bothered to show up. But there were plenty of solutions proposed throughout the day. Congresswoman Katherine Clark (D-MA) hopes to address some of these problems with a federal bill that would fund cybercrime training for law enforcement.
Clark, who became something of a personal champion for Brianna Wu during Gamergate, told The Verge in a phone interview that she thinks police are "just unfamiliar with how to investigate these cases and what they really mean, and what the true impact is." She believes that training programs and expert hires in police departments could generate the cultural shift necessary to get officers to take online harassment seriously.
Chemaly argued that the use of more precise language when talking about online harassment would be helpful in combating societal apathy. She said the root of the problem is "a culture that passively enables violent entitlement," and went on to give detailed definitions of various types of online harassment — doxxing, predation, impersonation, defamation, and threats of violence.
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.
Former Texas gubernatorial candidate and women's rights activist Wendy Davis named a lack of diversity in newsrooms as a cause of much of the online harassment that she experienced during her campaign and in the wake of her famous 2013 filibuster of a Texas anti-abortion bill. Specifically, she took The New York Times to task for a profile they wrote about her, questioning her credentials and career path (through the lens of her status as a mother) under the headline "Can Wendy Davis Have it All?" Davis explained that she believes carelessness and subtle misogyny in the mainstream media is part of "giving permission to the online harassing, and saying it's okay to view women, critique women, and talk about women differently."
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 people who build online tools inform the tools"
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.
Merely existing in an online space is still a pretty fraught task for a lot of people, and the panelists at SXSW's first harassment summit were interested first and foremost in establishing that as fact. It would have been nice if more of the people who leant their support online to make the summit happen had shown up to experience the conversation, and it will certainly be a long road to significant change if the only people in the room continue to be the women who are already excruciatingly aware of the problem. Cross wrapped up the Q&A of her panel saying, "everyone is on board with girls' empowerment and girls' leadership, until girls start trying to define that empowerment themselves."
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Jamia Wilson was employed by Women's Media Center. In fact she is no longer employed there, and now works for Women, Action, and the Media. We regret the error.