SXSW: Online Harassment Summit Highlights Gender Bias in Media

Michael Buckner/Getty Images for SXSW

"It's not playing victim to call it when it happens," says former Texas politician Wendy Davis of identifying gender bias in the media.

About a mile away from the South by Southwest hubbub at the Austin Convention Center on Saturday, a smaller group met to discuss online harassment in a daylong summit. 

The series of discussions — which ranged in topic from Internet bullying to the economics of online harassment — were planned after SXSW organizers faced backlash last year for canceling two harassment-related panels citing security concerns. In October, SXSW canceled the panels, which were going to discuss harassment in the gaming community and would feature speakers vocal about the Gamergate controversy, after the festival received threats of on-site violence. The community responded quickly, with BuzzFeed and Vox Media both announcing plans to boycott the event if the panels weren't reinstated. 

So SXSW decided to hold an entire day's worth of programming devoted to the topic of online harassment. Hosted at the Hyatt Regency just across Lake Lady Bird in downtown Austin, the event had a noticeable security presence and bags were being checked thoroughly before attendees were allowed to enter the venue. The panels also started with an announcement about code of conduct: hate speech or harassment during the panel would lead to removal from the discussion. 

In a panel titled "Women in the Media and Online Harassment," the primarily female audience readily agreed to the parameters. The discussion that followed touched on everything from personal experiences with harassment for the panelists, who included former Texas politician Wendy Davis, and how to solve problems of online harassment for young girls. 

Davis, a former state senator known for filibustering to block a bill designed to create more restrictive abortion policies in Texas, said that online harassment of women in the public sphere often starts with how the media portrays these figures. She went on to describe a 2014 New York Times Magazine story titled "Can Wendy Davis Have It All?" that she described as "examining my bona fides as a mother." 

"It's part of giving permission to the online harassing," Davis continued, explaining that a male politician would not have received that same treatment. She said the story's message was that "it's OK to view women, critique women" differently. 

Although Davis said she has developed a thick skin, she acknowledged that not all young girls who are subject to online harassment have the same experience she does. Panelist Meredith Walker, a co-founder of Amy Poehler's Smart Girls, said that she works with that online community to teach them to be supportive. "We try to be part of the solution," she added, noting that Smart Girls aggressively monitors comments and reminds commentators "to be factual, you have to be respectful to others." 

As to why online harassment occurs, Women's Media Center's Soraya Chemaly said it's rooted in harassment that occurred before the Internet. "I write a lot about sexualized violence and street harassment," she added. "This is just a digitized street." 

Davis noted that women are still largely underrepresented in the media. "Where we have fewer women's voices and lenses and experiences filtering the kinds of stories covered, the way they are covered ... has its own inherent biases." 

She went on to discuss Donald Trump's comments about Fox News' Megyn Kelly. "I saw her try to rise above that, to move past it," said Davis. "We women are particularly programmed not to play victim when we're at the receiving end of something like that. But let's all decide and agree that it's not playing victim to call it when it happens."