AUSTIN, TEXAS — A police officer scanned the room as Brianna Wu, a video game developer and blogger, was troubleshooting computer connection problems.
“How about if I do this, if I feel unsafe?” Wu said to the female officer who had walked up beside her. She made a quick motion, raising her arm near her face and landing in her lap, that would serve as a distress signal in case the event turned hostile or was disrupted by protesters.
In less than 10 minutes, Wu, who gained notoriety after receiving Gamergate-related harassment and violent threats, would lead an anti-harassment panel, “Is A Safer, Saner, and Civil Internet Possible,” to discuss the unique online harassment issues facing women and people of color at South By Southwest’s (SXSW) inaugural Online Harassment Summit.
Wu was one of many online harassment victims slated to speak during SXSW’s day-long event dedicated to unpacking the complex legal, cultural, and tech-based issues surrounding abusive behavior online.
The breakout event was intended to elevate dialogue about harassment issues on digital platforms. But in doing so, the legendary tech conference turned cultural zeitgeist managed to encapsulate the nuanced challenges associated with criticizing online harassment in public: How do you keep safe people who have experienced everything from racial and gendered slurs to rape and death threats, while simultaneously encouraging open and frank discussions with opposing viewpoints?
Gamergate vs. SXSW
From the beginning, SXSW’s Online Harassment Summit was steeped in controversy. The conference cancelled several harassment-related panels after the organization received threats of onsite violence in October.
After fierce public backlash, SXSW reinstated the “Safer, Saner, and Civil” panel Wu moderated Saturday, as well as two others that were cut from the conference, “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games” and “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community.” The conference doubled down and added 13 more panels on harassment, turning a public relations faux pas into a fearless event.
The conference, which is celebrating its 30th year, has held panels on online harassment in the past. This year was different in that it was the first time harassment in the gaming industry was a topic.
“There were SXSW panels in the past about online harassment,” said Shireen Mitchell, who organized the “Safer, Saner” panel. “This was a tipping point because they dipped into Gamergate,” and online harassment in the gaming industry.
Gamergate, a controversial and decentralized online group associated with social media attacks against women who criticize sexism in video games, was suspected to be behind last year’s threats against SXSW and anti-harassment panelists.
Despite being an impetus for the summit’s creation, the group wasn’t the main topic of discussion. Speakers adamantly refused to talk extensively about Gamergate, and readily turned focus on the broader issue of online harassment.
Minutes into her panel, Wu clipped short discussion of the group after briefly explaining how the group affected her, other panelists, and SXSW. “I don’t want to make this a Gamergate panel. We’ve talked about it ad nauseam,” she said.
In the formerly eliminated “Level Up” panel, moderator Kami Huyse, who runs digital marketing firm Zoetica, quickly dispelled any expectations of talking about the group before diving into the discussion: “We’re not going to talk about Gamergate. Gamergate is a symptom.”
Security Didn’t Stop Online Harassment
SXSW didn’t take any chances on the violent threats it received being empty banter. Security was tight: Guests were subject to thorough bag checks, officers from the Austin Police Department were in every room, patrolling the corridors and conducting room sweeps with SXSW volunteers after each of the 16 panels. Attendees were repeatedly warned not to leave bags unattended or risk that they be destroyed, and, as if in anticipation of verbal backlash, to be respectful when addressing panelists.
The strict precautions worked and no incidents were reported during the weekend event. But there were still disruptions for panelists, especially online.
Caroline Sinders, a user experience designer who organized the “Level Up” panel, said she received taunting tweets throughout the day, with many messages targeting her employer. Mitchell, who runs several non-profits for women and people of color in tech, was caught in a back-and-forth between a reporter and a presumed Gamergate supporter who called her a liar and said she wasn’t qualified to do media interviews.
Speakers also witnessed a man with conference credentials at the event duck in and out of sessions, snapping photos of the room. Those photos were later tweeted at Sinders, other panelists, and media outlets mocking the summit’s sparse attendance. While the pictures appear to be taken before talks started and people were seated, they highlighted a major concern for the event — attendance.
— Brenz (@brenz660) March 13, 2016
‘Diluting The Conversation’
Every panel seemed to go smoothly and meet expectations for lively and authentic conversations. There was vibrant discussion and engagement from audience members working in tech, advocacy, and particularly media, all asking questions about what they could do to help minimize abuse in their companies. The day came to an emotional head when a CNN reporter, asking a question in an unofficial capacity, broke down as she recounted the vicious messages she has received for her coverage of revenge porn.
But anti-harassment organizers believe organizational problems preceding the event, including some push-back from SXSW, caused the summit to fall flat. “It could have been a better effort if they took into account what I was suggesting,” said Shireen Mitchell, founder of Digital Sistas, a non-profit that advocates for women of color in tech, and who organized the “Safer, Saner, Civil” panel which was cut from the conference’s line-up before SXSW was threatened. “They’re still not the experts, the experts [on harassment] were talking to you and that wasn’t taken into account.”
SXSW had more than 70,000 registered attendees for the nine-day conference. Approximately 200 people, including speakers, police, volunteers and media, attended the Online Harassment Summit — a decent turnout by standalone conference standards but a disappointment for many involved in the planning.
Randi Harper, who runs the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative and spoke on the “Level Up” panel, tweeted her impressions following the event.
So what happened?
The first problem was location. The summit was hosted in a hotel several minutes drive or an uncomfortably long walk away from SXSW’s MainStage events at the Austin Convention Center downtown. That decision likely made the location more secure — it was smaller, easily contained, and away from the main hoards — but it also decreased the chances for people who weren’t familiar with online harassment issues to pop-in for discussions.
Another kink was the structure of the sessions. Three panels ran concurrently throughout the day, and topics were often duplicated. “That in itself dilutes the conversation. You have it too far away and the people who are hardcore interested, you’re splitting them up and making them make decisions on where to be,” said Mitchell, who admittedly bounced around throughout the day.
It was too far away from the convention center which something I asked them not to do. https://t.co/PFBWEpgVkT
— Shireen Mitchell (@digitalsista) March 14, 2016
The conversations, as a result, happened in a silo with panelists frequently echoing similar opinions or observations. For example, tech companies — namely Google and Facebook, which have conservative-leaning free speech policies, were grouped with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has voiced a similar policy stance. That setup prevented ideological confrontations that could have been valuable.
“We asked SXSW to give us time with Google and Facebook to very specifically talk about policies that need to be implemented. I begged them for time but as part of a systematic failure in putting this conference together, they denied us that,” Brianna Wu told ThinkProgress following her panel. Facebook’s product policy head Monica Bickert and Google’s senior counsel Juniper Downs headlined a panel after Wu’s, discussing how much hate speech should be protected online.
Lastly, while speakers routinely brought up how online harassment more intensely affected marginalized communities such as people of color and the LGBT community, there wasn’t space for deeper probes into how these groups experienced online abuse. Representation from people of color and the LGBT community was instead sprinkled throughout the panels.
“It was very white,” Sinders said. Both she and Mitchell said they suggested several people of color to join the conference but many didn’t show up for security and other concerns. Those who did get invitations were invited late, which raised economic concerns, the women said.
Not thinking about diversity at the start of event planning can create unnecessary barriers and exacerbate existing social issues, Mitchell said. “It’s not whether you invited them. But when you include them in the planning process.”
“Diversity is not a trend. Diversity is my life because I have to live it everyday,” Mitchell said. “We need more diversity at these companies,” and by proxy conferences, “so when something alarming is coming through the pipeline,” it can be flagged and incorporated accordingly.
Organizational issues aside, the consensus was that SXSW’s Online Harassment Summit was a good first step that has room for improvement. “This was a great start for people who were completely unaware of what the issues were,” Mitchell said. “But for those of us who have been in the space, there was more that could have been done.”
Online harassment is a wide and complex problem that many people, particularly in tech, want to solve. But part of the solution is having more nuanced discussions with tech companies, engineers, media, law enforcement, and legal experts.
“It’s a multifactorial solution,” Wu said. “If you look at the failure of the system for Gamergate — they failed me, Anita Sarkeesian, and they failed Zoe Quinn. The FBI failed us, law enforcement failed us, the tech companies failed us, our industry failed us in who they hire and the [lack of] seriousness they take [online harassment]…Everything needs to change.”
But change takes time. Digital platforms are only a couple decades old. Harassment, however, has been around far longer. As Sinders pointed out, the concept of online harassment is new and it will take time before there’s a significant culture shift in how its dealt with and discussed.
“Domestic violence became a ‘thing’ in the 1970s but it has existed for thousands of years. But people were able to start naming it and accepting it in the 1970s, which means legislation being passed. But you also had people being trained to look for and recognize the signs of someone who was a victim of domestic violence,” she said. “We are now talking about online harassment. It’s good to have conversations in Big Tent events like SXSW, because it’s important to make sure it permeates as deeply into culture as possible.”
When it comes to technology and harassment, the conversation is just getting started. “We’re where society was after Henry Ford invented the car. People are driving but there aren’t stop signs or roads. But we think we’re at a place where there is infrastructure but people don’t have airbags.”
SXSW didn’t return requests for comment by publishing time.Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the hotel was several miles away from the Austin Convention Center. The Hyatt Regency was several minutes away driving and walking distance from SXSW’s main events.