SXSW Summit Illustrates Systemic Problems in How We Address Online Harassment

by Shanley Kane on March 15th, 2016

Over the weekend, the SXSW Summit on Online Harassment kicked off in Austin, Texas; a “first” for the one of the industry’s biggest, well-funded and heavily hyped conferences of the year. While it featured some compelling programming and even some great speakers, the Summit nonetheless illustrated a number of systemic problems with how we frame, discuss and address online harassment in tech. Issues around representation, accessibility, intersectionality, and respectability were rife, and it demonstrated plainly how discourse on online harassment is used to prop up corporations, brands and policing, instead of victims and marginalized populations. It also revealed a distinct lack of imagination in how we conceptualize and address online harassment: a lack of imagination which is one reason why — despite a massive increase in publicity — online harassment isn’t improving… and for many, it’s actually getting worse.    

Off To the Side, And Little Attended

Rarely do we see such a stark and literal example of how conversations on online harassment are simply… put aside: The Online Harassment Summit was physically cordoned away from the rest of the event — literally across a river from the main conference site. Like most conversations around diversity and social justice in technology, it was left off to its little space with higher barriers to access, rather than being presented as a “mainstream” topic deserving of the weight, attention and accessibility of general tech programming. Holding the conference out of the way of the rest of the conference, making it significantly less accessible to event attendees, and billing it as a “special interest” event, had a predictable result: multiple mainstream news sites report the event was sparsely attended, and images taken by Austin Statesman technology writer Omar L. Gallaga show mostly empty rooms for the morning’s panels. As the Verge noted, only 30-40 people attended each panel, and about half of the attendees were reporters: so despite the lack of attendance, the event generated an absolute glut of mostly fawning reporter coverage — showcasing how much of discourse around online harassment is really just an engine for a neverending feeding frenzy of clicks and headlines for mainstream media while nothing actually changes.

Centers Corporations, Big Media and Well-Funded Non-Profits

Prominent in the speaker lineup of the Summit were employees and spokespeople from dozens of extremely large, influential corporations and institutions. There were two speakers from Google, which despite a supposed “commitment” to addressing online harassment, recently hired the founder of online hate group 4chan onto its social team. Also present was Facebook, which is well-known for policies and features that harm marginalized groups, and even Whisper, an app which “has deliberately lied about anonymity, privacy, tracking and data storage on its platform while explicitly monitoring users, retaining ‘deleted’ data indefinitely, sharing user information with the government and specifically tracking high profile and potentially ‘newsworthy’ users.” There were also speakers from Vox, Cisco and IBM, and extremely well-known and well-funded non-profits including the ACLU, Pew Research and The Anti-Defamation league were given multiple speaking slots.

Through this lens, much of the SXSW “Summit” seems merely a shiny PR opportunity for massive tech, media and non-profit platforms to prop up their brands and disseminate institutional messaging. A panel on “How Far Should We Go to Protect Hate Speech” prominently featured Google and Facebook talking up their efforts in the space, and some dude falling all over himself to compliment their work addressing online harassment – it was really no more than a live-action fluff piece shining the reputations and credibility of multi-billion dollar organizations which are not only are massively complicit in the hiring discrimination which contributes to online harassment in myriad ways, but are huge locations of online harassment with too-often ineffective policies and tooling.

Moreover, most of the speakers were from highly professionalized, visible and well-supported roles: full of directors, CEOs, founders, vice presidents, etc. So many titles! This is in significant contrast to the primary victims of online harassment: often private, unaffiliated and highly marginalized individuals, generally with little or no access to community support, much less institutional access, support or funding. Even when they are the victims of online harassment, institutionally-affiliated professionals in prestigious and well-paid positions experience a vastly different reality than victims of online harassment without these privileges. So we have to question: why take an event on a topic that is inherently about marginalized people — as we all know by now, online harassment overwhelmingly targets such groups — and feature so heavily corporate mouthpieces, with a vested interest in appearing progressive and committed to anti-harassment even as their actions prove otherwise? And do we really need to dedicate full-day events on online harassment to upholding the visibility and brands of big tech companies?

While activists and founders from smaller organizations — including the Online Abuse Prevention Institute, HeartMob, Digital Sisters and The Bully Project — were present and deserve our attention, this opportunity to really focus on victims of online harassment, to center and create visibility around grassroots movements with fresh approaches and frameworks, was missed in a rush to showcase rich, powerful and influential organizations who already dominate the conversation on online harassment. Of course, making a move in who and what was centered would require SXSW to do things like provide paid speaking opportunities as well as cover travel, housing and sustenance expenses for speakers: not just free tickets in exchange for labor that ultimately contributes more value to corporations than marginalized communities. After all, most victims of online harassment, and most indie activists and orgs in the space, don’t have the big corporate expense accounts to shove these costs onto. Then again, this is just another way that the entire operating schema of SXSW — based on unpaid labor, and funded almost exclusively by large corporations — proves its very framework is anathema to making radical change around diversity, inclusion OR online harassment.

A Concerning Focus on Policing and Security Measures

Another concerning aspect of the Summit was its focus on policing, security, politics and government as solutions to online harassment. The Summit itself featured enhanced security measures, 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.’” Considering USA Fencing World Team member Ibtihaj Muhammad was asked to remove her hijab at SXSW registration on the same day of the panel, we have to ask ourselves how security measures presumably designed to “protect” people might actually perpetuate Islamophobia, racism, surveillance, gendered and racialized harassment and abuse by security professionals and cops, and other well-documented consequences of increased policing.

This emphasis on policing extended to the panel discussions itself. Considering police consistently ignore, and even endanger or re-victimize targets of online harassment, we have to ask why police were welcome anywhere near the event, much less as panelists. In addition to cops, a slew of politicians and attorneys were also in attendance, including a congress woman, a senator, multiple representatives from law schools, and attorneys from Google, the ACLU and more. Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) used the opportunity to announce and promote new legislation that “would establish a $20 million annual federal grant for state and local law enforcement agencies to train police officers, prosecutors, and emergency dispatchers in identifying and prosecuting cybercrimes.” The large funding amounts in question bring into sharp relief the reality that victims of online harassment often have little to no access to direct financial resources, and that independent groups against online harassment survive on shoestring budgets while hundreds of millions are being poured into legislation and criminalization efforts that aren’t producing results. Another panel advocated for criminalization of non-consensually shared sexual images (cyber sexual assault), ignoring the reality that existing efforts to criminalize and prosecute gendered crimes like sexual assault and rape are massively ineffective and too often harmful to victims.

The uncritical presentation of criminalization and policing as solutions illustrated a tech community happily and complacently out of touch — or perhaps deliberately ignorant — about how buffering, funding and upholding policing and criminalization invariably targets and oppresses people of color, especially Black people. “There’s a revolution happening in this country and across the globe. Hashtags of #BlackLivesMatter, cries of ‘Hands up, don’t shoot!’, and chants of ‘I can’t breathe!’ have been echoing through the streets and bouncing around my mind over the past few weeks. But you wouldn’t know it if you work in tech or maybe Corporate America in general,” wrote an anonymous Black software developer over a year ago in the MVC article Support for Black Humanity in Tech. The ignorance this article points to is ongoingly reflected in technology solutionism focused on upholding a racist and sexist system rather than dismantling it. We cannot continue to uncritically accept increased criminalization, police funding, and beefed-up security as “solutions” to online harassment, when it is these same systems that are manufacturing violence and oppression. Indeed, the feigned ignorance amazes considering the way so many White-owned tech and media companies — many present at this Summit and SXSW overall — have profited from consumption of antiblack violence, as YM Carrington highlights in “Trauma and Spectacle: Antiblack Violence and Media”.

As Lauren Chief Elk-Young Bear discussed on Twitter:

Tweet stream from user @chiefelk: "I have concerns about this online harassment #SXSW summit and the feminist push to start suggesting carceral solutions. Even some of the language being used to describe what's happening is already way too law enforcement-y. You don't need to start pushing more god damn policing to deal with this. But yeah what else can feminism ever fucking do but call for more criminalization for violence issues. Haven't you learned yet that anti-violence against women criminalization policies always backfire on the most marginal women?"

The use of online harassment — a form of gendered violence — to support criminalization, policing, and legislation and even the non-profit industrial complex is part of a system Lauren documents in her work No IVAWA. Particularly resonant in this discussion is her observation that “Often absent from the mainstream discussion of global [and domestic] violence against women is the recognition of the state as a perpetrator” — at SXSW, we see a profound lack of analysis of how police, government, and legislation contribute to the violence we see in online harassment, as well as overall racist and sexist violence, and how online harassment is being used as a talking point to uphold these institutions and even expand their power.  

Representation: Still More to Do

The Summit definitely had some compelling and accomplished voices from diverse backgrounds. Notable speakers included Arsham Parsi, executive director of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, Jamia Wilson from Women, Action & the Media, Nighat Dad from the Digital Rights Foundation, and Shireen Mitchell of Digital Sisters, who discussed the online harassment women of color face, particularly threats against their children and the interplay of “rape and race threats” on campuses, in addition to the erasure and challenges she faced in getting programming focused on women of color into SXSW. Despite some fantastic speakers, in a world where Black women are often the first targets of online hate, are disproportionately targeted by online harassment, and also leaders in documenting, analyzing and defending against online harassment (see @sassycrass’ work on #yourslipisshowing), there should have been way more Black women featured at this event. At a quick glance, I estimated there were about 3-4 white men presenting for every Black woman on stage.

There were other issues around representation as well: having panels like “Respond and Protect: Expert Advice Against Online Hate” – with all-male speakers – felt at best paternalistic, at worst victim-blaming as panelists insisted that major tech platforms “care” about online harassment, suggested not going into areas of the internet “you don’t understand,” and encouraged people to always report, even when reporting has proved dangerous and ineffective. A presentation on bullying in youth populations, bafflingly featured… no youth. It would have been great to see more trans women; as Anna Anthropy noted in a recent MVC article, “trans women in games are the people who have the least support network and who are the most vulnerable to GamerGate-style harassment.” The Summit would have also benefitted from the presence of more fat women, more women with disabilities and/or mental illness, more queer women, more men of color, more youth; more more more… While it was great to see so many women represented, it seems clear that — especially considering the marginalized groups most affected by online harassment — SXSW could have done a better job with its speaker line-up.  

Lack of Alternative Visions and Framings

Perhaps most poignant about the SXSW Summit was the missed opportunity to explore more compelling ideas and frameworks on the subject of online harassment, rather than the same tired corporate speeches, focus on mainstream tech platforms, and framings through the lens of legislation, policing and security. Instead of a panel on “The Economics of Online Harassment” about the supposed “cost” of inaction to tech companies, why not a panel looking at how online harassment is benefitting platforms by driving engagement numbers? Instead of inviting police officers, what about inviting speakers to discuss how reporting to police often leads to even more violence? What about inviting spokespeople to address non-carceral solutions to online harassment? What about more focus on #BlackLivesMatter and how online harassment affects that movement?

Instead of inviting dozens of state representatives, attorneys and policy-makers, what about instead discussing community justice and corporate accountability? And instead of not one but TWO panels centering harassers — “Profiling a Troll: Who They Are and Why They Do It” and “To Catch A Troll” — why not more dialogues ABOUT and BY victims on what *they* want and need? And instead of giving tons of technologists from establishing tech companies the floor, why not putting on stage independent, marginalized developers trying to build alternatives to mainstream social networks, like CollectQT, a queer trans collective building a safer and more inclusive social network, or Ditto, a link aggregator founded by Black software developer Michael DeBerry?

As I wrote in a recent article, “Online harassment against women in tech and gaming is by no means decreasing. In fact, if anything, it has become more pervasive and mainstream.” Since what we keep doing isn’t working, the last thing we need is more online harassment “Summits” with more of the status quo. Instead, we need to move towards more critical thinking, better frameworks, and a renewed focus on victims and grassroots movements: not corporations, PR and cops.