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SXSW Online Harassment Summit: How Widespread Is Internet Hate and What Can We Do About It?

Predictably, there are no easy answers.


What causes online harassment? How prevalent is it? How do we deal with it? Can we? If so, who’s responsible for taking action?

These are the questions on everyone’s mind at the SXSW Interactive Online Harassment Summit, held in downtown Austin’s Hyatt Regency hotel. Speakers from Google, Facebook, the ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League and loads of well-known anti-harassment activists have gathered here with the express goal of airing some of the uglier truths about online discourse.

To backstory here is that the Online Harassment Summit was born out of a controversy involving the toxic online Gamergate movement, which ascended in 2014 and ushered in a larger conversation about the problem of Internet abuse. This past fall, Re/code extensively covered the fallout of SXSW Interactive’s decision to cancel two gaming-related panels because of security threats; one session included targets of Gamergate and planned to discuss abuse more broadly, and the other was organized by people associated with Gamergate.

Threats from Vox Media* and BuzzFeed to pull out unless SXSW reinstated the panels, plus heated discussion on social media, pushed SXSW Interactive director Hugh Forrest to put together the Online Harassment Summit. Though there were some bumps on the way — including exasperated tweets from those helping to put the Summit together — the event began on Saturday without any visible hitches.

One of the first panels, “Why Does Hate Thrive Online,” addressed the roots of online hate and how pervasive the problem is. Online abuse expert and panelist Andrea Weckerle said that “one out of three people said they’ve been targeted by or witnessed harassment online,” and Maeve Duggan, her co-panelist from the Pew Research Center, said that Pew survey data found that the dominant varieties of online abuse included “name-calling, embarrassment [public humiliation], physical threats, sustained harassment, sexual harassment and stalking.”

Duggan added that while men said they experience more harassment online than women, the kind of abuse that women reported was much more severe, particularly among younger women.

Other panels and speakers attempted to wrestle with the question of what can be done about it. Also this question: When does attempting to regulate hateful speech end up infringing on free speech values?

Brianna Wu, a game developer and one of the Summit’s planners, specifically called out Silicon Valley, telling her session that “we need these companies to agree to outside auditing of their practices,” in order to properly evaluate what these platforms can do to monitor hateful content. Canadian law professor Joanne St. Lewis also highlighted it as a corporate problem, arguing that harassment doesn’t take place in the “digital commons — it’s American corporate space.”

Elsewhere, in a panel entitled “How Far Should We Go to Protect Hate Speech,” speakers from Google, Facebook and the ADL discussed their approaches, obligations and official community guidelines.

“When we enforce [hateful content] policies, that’s where the real difficulty is. Crafting a policy is tricky especially because we’re so global,” Facebook policy exec Monika Bickert said. “But the really tricky part is how can we enforce those policies when we receive more than one million reports a day.”

Google’s Juniper Downs also emphasized Google’s efforts to manage YouTube’s community, where “scale is truly tremendous.”

“It’s not ‘anything goes’ — the detail is important here,” Downs said. “We don’t allow content that incites violence or that has primary purpose of promoting hatred [against ethnic groups, genders, etc.]. We removed 14 million videos in 2014.”

Virtually all the speakers agreed on one point however: Dealing with these problems requires a combination of changing technological platforms, laws and social norms. In the “Hate Thrives” panel, Susan Benesch raised a point that shrewdly addressed all three.

“Some people will say things online without really thinking about the consequences,” Benesch said. “And in some cases, when they are held to account, they come to their senses.”

* Vox Media owns this website.

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