Security Tight at SXSW Harassment Seminars

March 13, 2016, 12:41 AM UTC
Photograph by Robert MacPherson—AFP/Getty Images

The security at SXSW’s day-long Online Harassment seminar was as serious as the topic.

Attendees at the event, held about a mile away from the heart of the interactive film and music festival, were subjected to a thorough bag check, regularly reminded to keep their bags with them at all times and told that any “inappropriate, disorderly or offensive” conduct would result in them being promptly removed from the building. To emphasize the seriousness of these warnings, the Austin Police Department had a heavy presence in the hotel hosting the seminar.

Panel after panel pulled no punches when addressing the issue of online harassment, particularly the increasing hostility against women online, with speakers from Google (GOOG), Facebook (FB) and the Anti-Defemation League.

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“One out of three people said they’ve been targeted by or witnessed harassment online,” said online abuse expert Andrea Weckerle at the “Why Does Hate Thrive Online” panel.

In another panel, Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of policy management, backed this up, noting that the social network receives 1 million reports of potential hate speech violations per day. (The reports span comments, photos, and videos.)

However, rather than looking back at harassment events like GamerGate (an online movement that started as a discussion of how women are objectified in video games and quickly turned into a cesspool of threats) that helped spawn the panel, many panels instead focused on how to prevent it moving forward.

For more on Gamergate, watch:

“We need these companies to agree to outside auditing of their practices,” said Brianna Wu, a game developer who has been subject to threats and harassment online and served as one of the event’s organizers.

“Gamergate is just a symptom,” added Kami Huyse, moderator of the “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games” panel. “We’re going to be putting potential solutions forward and looking at them critically.”

While some argue that widespread bans of people who harass others online would be a violation of free speech, Randi Harper of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative (and herself a victim of online harassment), says the same argument was made over spam email years ago.

Why Should You Care About Gamergate? Because Women are Still Being Threatened

“It took a long time for tech companies to realize anti-spam was a good thing,” she said. “And I think harassment is going to be the same. … I think over time, companies are going to see the [value] of having high quality content because bad content is chasing users away.”

SXSW set up the seminar after initially canceling the “Overcoming Harassment in Gaming” panel (along with another panel that was pro GamerGate) due to “threats of on-site violence.” Without civil dialogue, Forrest wrote, “this marketplace of ideas is inevitably compromised.”

That decision led to a firestorm of controversy, with outlets including Vox Media and Buzzfeed threatening to pull out of the show—and SXSW officials quickly retrenched and announced the full-day series of panels.

Austin police said there were no incidents at the seminar throughout the day.

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