SXSW 2016: Little impact from isolated online abuse summit

A man dressed as a wolf, playing a violin
Image caption The debate was held away from the lively events at the key SXSW location

In funky downtown Austin, Texas, the South By Southwest Interactive festival attracts enthusiastic start-ups desperate to grab your attention. Over and over again you hear people implore: "Please sign up!"

But over the river, a very different tone can be found at a side event that looks to take on an uncomfortable truth for the cheerful masses - that for an increasing number of people, being on the internet is a miserable, and sometimes dangerous experience.

For the first time in SXSW's 22-year history, the festival has facilitated an Online Harassment Summit. It was intended to be a gathering of people who have been affected, as well as a smattering of people who might be able to do something about the problem.

In the end, the event was marked by determination but frustration - with little sign of tangible progress.

The path to Saturday's summit was dramatic. It began when Caroline Sinders, a Brooklyn-based user researcher, mooted the idea of a panel discussion at SXSW looking at online harassment - specifically, harassment within gaming.

After threats of harassment were made, Ms Sinders' panel was cancelled by SXSW.

Image caption Brianna Wu called on social networks to do more to protect users

So too was a separate panel organised by several supporters of Gamergate - a controversial online movement which at that time said it was about ethical concerns in gaming journalism, but was regarded by others as a thinly veiled front for misogynistic abuse.

Neither panel had mentioned Gamergate specifically, but the issues at hand were undoubtedly linked.

The cancellation of Ms Sinders' event caused uproar, and threats from some media outlets to boycott the entire SXSW event.

It led to a compromise: an entire day of discussion about online harassment, but at a venue that could be protected with tight security.

'They are failing us'

Attending the event was Brianna Wu, a games developer who has been on the receiving end of online abuse for well over a year.

Hosting a panel that asked "Is a safer, saner and civil internet possible?", Ms Wu accused social networks of standing by while their platforms were used to spread hate.

"When it comes to pragmatically moving the ball forward, we need oversight for social media companies," Ms Wu told the BBC later.

"They need outside people to come in and view their processes to make sure that things like death threats and harassment has no role in the public conversation.

"We need social media companies to step up their policies - because they are failing us."

Image caption The Online Harassment Summit was created in response to threats against other proposed panels at SXSW

Representatives from several technology companies - most notably Google and Facebook - also took part in panel sessions.

Google declined the BBC's request for an interview on the subject, but Facebook's head of product policy, Monika Bickert, said the site was doing all it could, but that technological solutions were in short supply.

"When we think about hate speech and harassment, it's so highly contextual," Ms Bickert told the BBC.

"You might for instance have someone using a racial slur to attack a person, and that would violate our policies. [But] you might also have somebody using that slur to say 'this morning, on the subway, someone called me this word, it was upsetting'.

"We need a real person looking at it to make a decision."

On the subject of inviting in some kind of independent auditors to monitor how effective Facebook's measures against harassment are, Ms Bickert said it worked closely with outside experts.

Cultural view

Facebook's view presents a rather disheartening stalemate - no amount of technology will prevent the real problem at hand: that human beings can be horrible to each other.

But Shireen Mitchell comes at the problem from a different angle. She founded a group called Digital Sisters. It wants more diversity in technology companies, loosening the dominance of white males at most big technology firms.

"The reason that many who are in the tech industry don't know what's happening, or can't identify it, is because they're coming from a different cultural spectrum.

Image caption Facebook's Monika Bickert said it was hard to use algorithms to solve the problem

"If you are inclusive of women, women from different backgrounds, transgender women, women of colour, you will be able to parse out what the challenges are and get to it sooner."

This suggestion hasn't fallen on deaf ears - many technology companies are actively looking at ways to build a more diverse workforce in a manner which is targeted, rather than tokenism.

But Ms Mitchell said she felt minorities were given a tougher ladder to climb in proving their worth.

"When it comes to people of colour, they're asked to have two degrees, three degrees… but people like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates - they're dropouts!"


Caroline Sinders, the person behind the original panel that led to this entire day, told the BBC she was worried about how isolated the event was from the main hub of SXSW action.

"I worry at a place like [SXSW], because it was thrown together so hastily, it was more around talking about harassment and not about solving harassment," she said.

"As opposed to saying 'everyone come over here', I think a lot of these panels would have been better situated within SXSW.

"By creating a completely separate space for an online harassment panel, we are far away, we're missing all these other people that maybe had no idea."

But, she said, she was encouraged that the issue of online harassment was at least being clearly defined.

She likened the current situation to that of domestic violence awareness campaigns in the 1970s and 80s.

By giving online harassment a name, and helping both victims and perpetrators recognise when it is occurring, real work can at least begin.

Follow Dave Lee on Twitter @DaveLeeBBC and on Facebook

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