Live From SXSW: Battling Online Harassment

March 16, 2015       Amy Sample Ward      

There are inevitably many formal sessions at SXSW Interactive, virtual announcements or product launches, and hallway conversations about new platforms and mobile apps. Many are designed to bring people together to share stories and content, create digital watering holes, and make connections.

Amidst that backdrop, one session hosted a critical conversation about the real issues of online harassment and opportunities for organizing for change.

Rinku Sen, executive director and president of Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation and the publisher of “Colorlines,” has received all kinds of harassment and accusations. Much of it is just ignored as it is the same thing they received before the Internet. What has been harder to deal with, according to Sen, is the backlash from self-identified liberals. Sen shared a recent case study of their public critique of a T-shirt company that used the events in Ferguson, Mo., to promote product sales. After the critique, the T-shirt company launched a Facebook ad campaign attacking “Colorlines” and the reporters. “Colorlines” then made a statement to disassociate from the controversy, followed by a second statement supporting the reporters specifically. “It created a lot of distraction in the organization,” said Sen.

Sen shared three specific lessons from that experience for all organizations:

1. Make a plan for dealing with harassment before it happens. In the moment, it is really hard to think clearly and activate the correct people. What are your criteria for responding or not resending? Who is going to be consulted and who is responsible for taking action? How will you know if you want to take legal action or not? Create these plans and ensure they are shared with all staff so everyone is prepared.

2. Mine the incident for any potential positive outcomes. You might have a chance to illuminate your issue and why it is critical to have support for your work. You might also have a chance to enrage your base enough to move them to action on your behalf. Be prepared to document, share, and communicate what is going on as immediately as possible with your community.

3. Make sure you take care of self and staff emotionally and physically. If there’s a physical threat, surround that person with resources. It is also a really difficult thing to experience emotionally and it is easy to feel isolated, so you want to have tools in place for when things happen so that your emotional equilibrium as a group stays steady.

Allyson Kapin, founder of Rad Campaign and Women Who Tech, moderated the session and highlighted findings from Rad Campaign’s 2014 research into the rise of online harassment. Some of those results included:

* 25 percent of American adults have been harassed online or know someone who has been harassed;

* 67 percent of those harassed online knew their harasser;

* 72 percent of those harassed were under the age of 35; and,

* Both men and women are harassed online; 57 percent of women and 43 percent of men.

You can access the full report data and review the infographic at http://onlineharassmentdata.org/

***

Amy Sample Ward is CEO of NTEN: The Nonprofit Technology Network.