Modern field guide to security and privacy

Solutions emerge at highly anticipated SXSW harassment summit

This year's South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin dedicated a series of panel discussions on how to combat the growing problem of online abuse in social media and gaming. 

Ann Hermes
South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive attendee, Natasha Wiscombe checks her phone outside of the JW Marriott hotel where panels are being held on March 12, 2016, in Austin, Texas.

Twenty minutes after her session at this week's South by Southwest Interactive conference, state Rep. Katherine Clark (D) of Massachusetts thanked a woman who shared her online abuse experience with conference-goers. 

A moment later, panelist Sgt. B.A. Finley of the Johns Creek (Ga.) Police Department handed the woman his card and told her he'd send her tips to deal with harassment issues.

Like many exchanges during the SXSW summit meant to draw attention to the real effects of digital intimidation and abuse, it was a supportive one that underlined the gravity of the issue for both speakers and attendees. 

"This is so personal to people, and they know this is happening to a lot of other people," said Representative Clark said in an interview after the panel. "But when it happens to you, it's a very isolating and terrifying event."

During this year's SXSW conference in Austin, which draws entrepreneurs, techies, artists, and filmmakers to the Texas capital every year, the conference dedicated a series of panels to the issue of digital harassment.

The festival decided to give the issue more prominence this year following the intense backlash after it removed an all-female panel about combatting the issue of intimidation in the gaming community through design. The festival had originally decided to remove that panel because of "threats of violence."

Those threats were at the forefront of law enforcements' minds during the summit, which took place Saturday, as Austin police officers watched over the summit. Additionally, a private security company performed bag checks at both entrances to the building. But, according to Lt. Kevin Leverenz of the Austin Police Department, no threats emerged that day online or in person.

Clark, who was among those who urged SXSW to hold the harassment summit, used the opportunity to announce a new bill during the "To Catch A Troll" panel that would establish a fund to train state and local law enforcement how to combat online abuse more effectively.

"It is being used to chill [women’s] voices and their First Amendment rights, and we have to have a response that's coordinated," she said.

Part of that response also starts with the online platforms where the abuse is taking place, said panelist Katherine Cross, a Ph.D candidate at the City University of New York, who spoke on a separate panel during the summit.

"When you start designing a new platform, whether it's a social media platform or an online game, community managers should be there from the very start," said Ms. Cross.

Panelist Randi Harper, founder of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, wants companies such as Twitter to give users more control over the type of content that appears in their feed in additional to the ability to block out specific users.

"You're blocking a user and not blocking content," she said.

It's also critical that websites give victims of online abuse space to share their experiences, said Desiree Caro, program coordinator for Heartmob, an online community that provides support for victims of online abuse.

"You can’t frame an issue like online harassment in logic, because a lot of the things that are happening are illogical," Caro said. "So you have to listen to the experiences of people to figure out the problem and how to approach that."


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