The South By Southwest Interactive conference in Austin is a celebration of the fun, camaraderie, and innovation of the Internet, but in recent years the event has been forced to take a frank look at the darker side of the web—harassment and bullying.
This year the conference organizers facilitated an event called the Online Harassment Summit, a gathering of victims of online harassment and industry representatives who might be able to come up with constructive ways to do something about the problem.
Last year, SXSW organizers had to cancel a couple of panels related to the Gamergate controversy, in which female gaming developers were showered with online hate and even death threats. One of the poster children for the controversy, Brooklyn-based gaming blogger Caroline Sinders, took part in this year's summit. Another event featured a group that said it was concerned about ethics in gaming journalism but was widely considered sympathetic to the male members of the gaming community who took part in the harassment.
This year's day-long summit took place at a Hyatt Regency across the river in South Austin, somewhat removed from the main conference downtown. Many were worried about potential security problems at the event, as Gamergate remains an emotionally charged issue for many.
Fortunately, the summit went off without any incidents. Attendees said the police and security presence was "noticeably high," reports USA Today. Summit attendees even had to have their bags checked, and panels at the event opened with a statement directing attendees to "act responsibly and treat each other with respect."
Sinders told the BBC that the out-of-the-way location of the summit says a lot about how the tech industry regards the issue of harassment. She says the industry has begun to acknowledge that harassment is a real problem, but has made little real progress toward fixing it in a systematic way.
"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," Sinders said.
Executives from Facebook, Google, Cisco, and IBM sat on some of the panels. Facebook's head of policy management, Monika Bickert, said monitoring and enforcing rules about harassment and hate speech on the social platform is difficult because hate speech comes in so many forms, and because it's often the context in which a comment appears that determines whether or not there are hateful intentions behind it. She estimates that Facebook gets a million reports a day of possible hate speech violations on the social network.
Also speaking was Brianna Wu, a developer of games aimed at women, who was forced into the middle of the Gamergate controversy after she was targeted by violent and misogynistic threats—some of them death threats. Wu called on social media companies like Facebook to do more to police and stop harassment on their networks.
Wu, who noted that her husband and even her dog had also been threatened, took particular aim at YouTube and Reddit, among other platforms where Gamergate supporters meet, claiming that they aren't proactive enough at removing offensive content, reports the New York Times. "I can’t say this clearly enough: Reddit is failing women in every marginalized community spectacularly," Ms. Wu said. As the Times noted, policing content is a mammoth undertaking—considering that users upload about 400 hours of video a minute to YouTube and Reddit has hundreds of millions of regular monthly users.