Jun 19, 2022

Vice President Harris Launches the White House Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse 6/16/22 Transcript

Vice President Harris Launches the White House Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse 6/16/22 Transcript
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Vice President Harris Launches the White House Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse on 6/16/22. Read the transcript here.

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Speaker 1: (00:00)
Please welcome Jen Klein, director of White House Gender Policy Council.

Jennifer Klein: (00:09)
Good afternoon, everyone. I’m Jennifer Klein, the director of the White House Gender Policy Council. Thank you so much for joining us today at the launch of the White House Task Force to address online harassment and abuse. I’d like to thank Vice President Harris for launching the task force today, along with Attorney General Garland and Surgeon General Murthy.

Jennifer Klein: (00:31)
I’d also like to thank Dr. Elizabeth Sherwood Randall from the National Security Council for co-chairing the task force, as well as [inaudible 00:00:40] from the National Economic Council, Dr. [inaudible 00:00:43] Nelson of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and senior officials representing nine departments and agencies, all members of this task force for being here.

Jennifer Klein: (00:53)
Earlier today, the president signed a presidential memorandum officially establishing this task force, advancing the Biden Harris Administration’s commitment to prevent and address all forms of gender-based violence wherever it occurs. This task force will address the pervasive problem of online harassment and abuse, which disproportionately targets women, girls, and LGBTQI+ people.

Jennifer Klein: (01:17)
It will focus on five broad areas. First, prevention. Second, services and support for survivors. Third, research to better understand the scope and impact of the problem. Fourth, accountability. And fifth, the connection between online harassment, hate, and extremist violence.

Jennifer Klein: (01:37)
Within 180 days, this task force will present recommendations in each of these areas, including policies and programs for the government, as well as the private sector and civil society. At today’s inaugural meeting, we’ll hear from survivors, prosecutors, legal scholars, and victim advocates who will share their recommendations. To get us started, it is my pleasure to introduce Sloane Stevens, US Open Tennis Champion, survivor, and mental health advocate.

Sloane Stevens: (02:19)
Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. I’m humbled to share the stage with these incredible survivors and I’m hopeful that our collective voices can help address this issue. Many of you might first associate me with being a professional tennis player, which of course is my day job, but is not the sum of who I am. I’m a daughter, a sister, a wife, and I am more than an athlete, more than a label. Yet, all of that is disregarded when people online seek to harass me and harm me. No matter whether I win or lose, someone online is mad and they will make it known. There have been times when I’m walking off the court after a loss and not even thinking about anything related to tennis. And I’m just worried to see what will be on the other end of my phone, because I know what will be waiting for me when I unlock it.

Sloane Stevens: (03:02)
People know where I live and everything that I do. I have been harassed and very credibly threatened. I understand that I’m a public figure. So this comes with the scope of my work, but that access and exposure should never come at the expense of my safety. It is so triggering to constantly advocate for myself and relive the trauma of these messages while knowing I’m getting more messages because I’m speaking up. No matter the emojis I block or the filters I put in place, I’ve learned that if someone is determined to be abusive and threatening, they will get very creative. But I love social media. I love being online and I use these platforms every day to keep up with my loved ones and have direct dialogue with my community. I’m constantly sharing memes and posts with my friends. In that same inbox, there are people threatening to harm me.

Sloane Stevens: (03:46)
When I went public with my experience after last year’s US Open, I was shocked by the outrage and the outpouring of support. It was baffling to me because this has been my daily lived experience for over a decade. Out of sheer survival, I’ve spent my career trying to desensitize myself on how unacceptable this is, escalating to authorities when credible and constantly in therapy to process. But then I thought about all the people out there who don’t have a team filtering their messages or a direct line to law enforcement or access to mental health services. What about them? What about the young boys and girls and people of color or anyone that’s terrified that they’ll be harmed or driven to harm themselves? I’m here today for them. I use my platform to have direct conversations with tech companies, fellow athletes, and anyone who thought I might have some power to influence the situation.

Sloane Stevens: (04:33)
This is how I arrive today here at the White House. I hope that by hearing these stories and bringing decision makers together, we can make a difference for everyone, no matter the size of their platform. It is now my pleasure to introduce someone who inspires and motivates me as a black woman and advocate and a trailblazer, someone who has dedicated her entire career to fighting for survivors of abuse and led the way in shining a light on cyber exploitation years before it was even an issue in the public’s radar, the vice president of United States, Kamala Harris. Thank you, Madam Vice President for all you have done and continue to do.

Sloane Stevens: (05:08)
Thank you.

Kamala Harris: (05:20)
Thank you your time.

Sloane Stevens: (05:21)
Thank you.

Kamala Harris: (05:24)
Please have a seat. Hi, everyone. Well, let me start by saying it is so good to be with our Attorney General Merrick Garland, our Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. And Gender Policy Council… Where she? Director Jennifer Klein and all the members of the task force. Thank you all for the work you do, for the extraordinary work that you do. Sloane, thank you for your courage. It takes a lot to put yourself out there as a public figure period, but then to speak out about something so many people, regardless of gender are experiencing. So thank you for your leadership. Thank you.

Kamala Harris: (06:02)
And to all the other survivors who are here today, you motivate us, you inspire us, and you are the voice of so many people who are in this room because of the voice that you express around these issues. And so I thank you for that and your strength and your sense of purpose. And in particular, I also want to acknowledge Matthew and Francesca. So I know it is not easy to talk about what you’ve experienced. And as all of you know, most of my career, I spent it as a prosecutor. And the majority of that time, I was focused on crimes affecting women and children, crimes that involve sexual abuse. And in many of the cases, in particular, when they were going to trial and we were prepared to go to trial, I’d sit down for extensive periods of time to talk with the survivors about their case and talk with them about what it would be like when they were going to walk out of my office and walk down the hall and walk into a courtroom.

Kamala Harris: (07:09)
And for some, as you all know, it was impossible to imagine what it would mean to speak publicly about what they’d been through when most don’t want to even speak about it in private. But every time I have to tell you, I was inspired by their bravery for so many reasons, both because of the courage it takes to tell a story that is a story that is informed by some of the most horrible experiences, but also informed by such pain. But I was also inspired because again, the courage that it takes to be that voice. When I would prosecute a case and the prosecutors here know that, I would stand in front of the jury and I would say Kamala Harris for the people and the charging-

Kamala Harris: (08:03)
And the charging document would not be the name of the victim or survivor versus the defendant. It was the people versus. Because, you see, in our form of justice, we have rightly said that individual should not be made to fight alone. A harm against her, against him, against them is a harm against all of us as a society. And so, it is with that spirit that we are doing the work we are doing today, to convene and to inaugurate this task force, understanding this affects all of us, if it affects any one of us. We, therefore, all of us have a responsibility to stand together to support those who have gone through this, but to also recognize they shouldn’t have to be alone fighting on this issue. So that’s the spirit with which we convene today and the spirit with which we are doing this work. I will tell you as attorney general, many of you know, when I was in California, I prosecuted the first case in the country of an operator of a cyber exploitation website. I’ll never forget. My office was mostly in Sacramento and we were dealing with a case …

Kamala Harris: (09:25)
If you could know, California, in another part of the state. I flew down to meet with the person who was actually handling the case to go … I went through the files to see where were we? What was going on? What were we going to do about this case? Because it was, in many ways, a case of first impression, although it wasn’t when we thought about the pathology of what was at play, when we thought about the … We call it the MO, modus operandi. When we talked about and thought about how it was being done, what was motivating it, and how it was making that victim and that survivor feel.

Kamala Harris: (10:01)
So, yes, it was the first in the nation, but we’d seen that kind of stuff before. The point was that we needed to update and upgrade ourselves as law enforcement and as the criminal justice system as a justice system, to recognize where it is now occurring, and update our approach to deal with it in all places where it exists, in a way that causes harm and pain and injury.

Kamala Harris: (10:26)
And so, that website in particular, what it did is it let people upload sexually explicit photographs of their former partners, the photographs that were taken and shared with consent in a consensual relationship. But, of course, what ended up happening is that one of those partners usually in that relationship had a grudge or an issue or a motivation to embarrass or to harm and would allow the photograph to be posted with the explicit intent, certainly with the implicit effect, of trying to embarrass and degrade and hurt and cause pain and attract judgment to that individual.

Kamala Harris: (11:12)
Well, in that case, I’m happy to report that the person who ran that website went to prison, because I do believe that there should be consequence for behaviors that harm other human beings. But this kind of justice is still so rare, because many of our laws have not caught up with the advances in technology.

Kamala Harris: (11:36)
So as the United States senator, I introduced legislation to make these acts a federal crime. Thanks to the recent … And our president, Joe Biden, and the recent reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, for the first time, cyber exploitation victims can sue their abusers in federal civil court. This is progress, yet we still have so much more work to do to protect people from online harassment and abuse, which is why the work of this task force is so important.

Kamala Harris: (12:14)
Context. well, the internet is an essential part of life in the 21st century. Can’t get around it. Can’t get around without it. And for far too many people, and Sloan told her story, the internet is a place of fear. One in three women under the age of 35 report being sexually harassed online. Over half of the LGBTQ+ people in our country are survivors of severe harassment. Nearly one in four Asian Americans report being called an offensive name, usually motivated by racism, being called an offensive name online. Black people who have been harassed online in our country are three times more likely to be targeted, again because of their race.

Kamala Harris: (13:12)
No one should have to endure abuse just because they are attempting to participate in society. Of course, the impact of this abuse extends beyond the ability to use the internet, the internet system, and the power of the internet without fear. It’s beyond that. In many cases, cyberstalking have serious mental health consequences for its victims, sometimes leading to self-harm, sometimes leading to suicide.

Kamala Harris: (13:44)
We continue to see how some acts of mass violence, the most recent included, have followed expressions of online hate and abuse. The white supremacist who murdered 10 Black people in Buffalo, New York was first radicalized, by all accounts, online.

Kamala Harris: (14:04)
After the massacre of 19 children, of 19 babies, and two teachers in Uvalde, it was revealed that the shooter had threatened to kidnap, rape, and kill teenage girls on Instagram. One of the girls he harassed described the abuse, I quote, as “just how online is”. Think about that. Hate has become so common on the internet that as a society, it’s becoming normalized and, for users, some might say unavoidable.

Kamala Harris: (14:53)
Recent events have also made it clear that we face new threats. Earlier this week, I met with a group of legal experts about how overturning Roe v. Wade will impact the right to privacy.

Kamala Harris: (15:04)
Now just think about this. In states where abortion is criminalized, an abuser could purchase a woman’s location history through a data broker. This is a realistic scenario. If that history shows that she sought an abortion out of state, he could then turn it over to law enforcement in a jurisdiction that has deemed that a crime. This is a horrifying possibility for that woman.

Kamala Harris: (15:38)
So let us be clear, no one should be afraid that an abuser will use their private personal data or that a person’s private personal data will be used against them. All people deserve to use the internet free from fear. This task force then will tackle a threat that has been far too real for far too …

Kamala Harris: (16:04)
… Will tackle a threat that has been far too real for far too many people for far too long. And the recommendations of this group and the extended group of experts, and those who have been advocates in this space for so long, the collective work will help modernize the federal government’s response to violence against women and people of all genders. It will lead to more evidence informed policies and interventions, and it will support more federal funding to address online harassment and abuse, including grants to train law enforcement and prosecutors.

Kamala Harris: (16:40)
It is incumbent on all of us. Government, local law enforcement and the tech sector to respond to the task at hand with a sense of urgency. So I thank you all for your tireless fight and for your advocacy, for your strength to prevent these harms from happening in the first place and to hold perpetrators accountable. And the president and I look forward to hearing all of your recommendations. Thank you also very much. Thank you

Speaker 2: (17:23)
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome-

Kamala Harris: (17:25)
The voice of God.

Speaker 2: (17:26)
Attorney General. Merrick Garland.

Attorney General Merrick Garland: (17:35)
Thank you, Madam Vice President for convening this important meeting-

Speaker 2: (17:38)
Of course.

Attorney General Merrick Garland: (17:39)
And for telling me where to stand. Thanks to Sloane Stephens, Matthew Herrick, Francesca Rossi, Mary Anne Franks, Carrie Goldberg, and Melissa Diaz for being with us today to share your experiences and your recommendations, which I know will inform our work in the days ahead. Online criminal harassment and abuse are serious offenses. They are easy to commit and often difficult to investigate, and they inflict devastating and long lasting harm on victims who are disproportionately women, children, and young adults and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Attorney General Merrick Garland: (18:23)
Preventing and addressing online criminal harassment and abuse requires a whole of government approach and that is why the Department of Justice is eager to take place, to take its role, take part in the critical work of this task force. Today, I’d like to briefly outline three areas of focus for the Justice Department. First, we are expanding our capacity to prevent online criminal harassment and abuse. Our Office of Violence Against Women is using every resource at its disposal to combat cyber stalking and misuse of technology by abusers, including through its stalking, prevention, awareness and resource center, which provides education and training at the local, regional, statewide and national levels.

Attorney General Merrick Garland: (19:15)
OVW has also funded important work that is underway to collect nationally representative data on cyber stalking in the United States. This data will help us assess the scope and the nature of these crimes, as well as determine survivors access to services and any unmet needs. We look forward to sharing the report and its findings, which will be published later this year. In addition, thanks to the 2020 VAWA reauthorization, the department has begun work to establish and maintain a national resource center on cyber crimes against individuals, which will provide resources, training, and technical assistance to prevent enforce and prosecute cyber crimes against individuals.

Attorney General Merrick Garland: (20:06)
Those cyber crimes include the use of technology to harass, threaten, stalk and extort as well as the non-consensual distribution of intimate images. The department has also requested 10 million for grant programs authorized under VAWA for states, Indian tribes and local governments to step up their own efforts to prevent and respond to cyber crimes. Second, we are expanding our capacity to prosecute online criminal harassment and abuse. Our 94 United States attorney’s offices across the country with the support of our criminal division are working in partnership with law enforcement at all levels to successfully prosecute these cases.

Attorney General Merrick Garland: (20:54)
Our OVW grant program supports specialized training for law enforcement partners to identify, investigate and bring cyber stalking cases and provide survivor centered services. And in the months ahead, the Justice Department will implement important provisions from VAWA aimed at improving our enforcement efforts. First, the FBI director will design and create within the uniform crime reports, a category for offenses that constitute cyber crimes against individuals. We will publish an annual report on this information and all the information that we gather to further inform our enforcement efforts.

Attorney General Merrick Garland: (21:37)
In addition, the department will develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to reduce the incidents of these cyber crimes, to coordinate investigations of these cyber crimes by federal law enforcement agencies, to increase the number of federal prosecutions of these cyber crimes and to develop an evaluation process that measures rates of cyber crime victimization and prosecutorial rates among tribal and culturally specific communities. Finally, we are expanding our capacity to protect and support the survivors of these crimes.

Attorney General Merrick Garland: (22:14)
The Office of Victims of Crime will award $3 million to victim services organizations through the Advancing the Use of Technology to Assist Victims of Crime Program. This program will support initiatives that use technology to increase access to services and information about victim’s rights, enhance service providers understanding of technology facilitated gender based violence and strengthened the responsiveness of victim services of organizations supporting survivors of this type of violence. The experience of online criminal harassment and abuse are often much more than a single incident or moment in time.

Attorney General Merrick Garland: (23:02)
Online criminal harassment and abuse can be life altering and sometimes life shattering, which endures long after the crime has occurred. We are committed to relentlessly investigating these crimes, bringing to justice those who perpetrate them and providing support for the survivors. Thank you all for your attention to the task. We look forward to our shared work in the days ahead. It’s now my honor to introduce my fellow general, the surgeon general of the United States.

Speaker 2: (23:49)
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.

Vivek Murthy: (24:00)
Well, thank you everyone for being here today. I want to first thank, though, Vice President Harris-

Vivek Murthy: (24:03)
… For being here today. I want to first thank the Vice President Harris and the Attorney General, Merrick Garland, all of my colleagues who are here across government for their leadership and commitment to addressing online harassment and abuse. I also want to thank Sloane and Matthew and Francesca, Maryanne, Carrie and Melissa, and all the survivors who are here with us today, and those who are advocating for them. What all of you are showing us and showing the whole country is how to use our voices and our platforms to help drive change, and that’s an incredibly powerful and important message, especially for young people. I also want to thank my friend, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra who could not be here today, but who shares deep concern about the bullying and abuse that’s taking place online, and who earlier this year kicked off in National Mental Health Tour to address mental health challenges that have been made worse by the pandemic.

Vivek Murthy: (24:56)
But most of all, I want to thank all the experts, advocates, and survivors who are here, because your courage to stand up, to speak out and to share your expertise and experience, that’s going to help make these efforts that we are announcing today a success. Now, I have the privilege and the great honor of serving as a surgeon general, but I’m here in a more important role, and that’s in my role as a father. I’m a dad of two small kids who are four and five, and I’m worried that my children and that your children and all our children are growing up in a world that’s filled with a lot of technology, but too few safeguards, and I worry about their safety. I recently met with a mother whose daughter was the victim of online harassment. Now, technically she was too young to set up social media accounts; yet, somehow she managed to set up seven, and these platforms and these accounts opened the doors to relentless abuse and harassment that she sustained in the months that followed.

Vivek Murthy: (25:58)
They robbed her of her happiness, her childhood, and ultimately, her life. She died by suicide at the age of 11. Each day, people are harassed, stalked and abused online. Some of them are deeply immersed in social media and others are only occasional users. Some are minors and others are adults. Some are affluent and others are not. There is no single face to those who are abused online, there’s no stereotype to who’s a victim. I want to talk today though, about the price of online abuse, specifically the mental health toll. I just returned from a youth mental health summit in Los Angeles, and it was organized in response to a surgeon general’s advisory that I issued recently on youth mental health. One of the young women that I met there spoke about how the harassment and public shaming that she endured on social media had taken a profound toll on her self-esteem, and had contributed to anxiety and had damaged their overall mental health and well-being.

Vivek Murthy: (27:02)
It’s a story shared by too many people, especially women and girls, members of the LGBTQ community and people from communities of color. The ripples that are generated by this trauma, they can be long lasting, but also far reaching. For every individual who is harmed, there are also family members and friends who experience distress and anxiety as they try to care for their loved ones. There are also additional demands placed on the mental healthcare system and on providers, and for many of those who survive, there’s a deepening well of loneliness and isolation that they experience as they grapple with the trauma that they’ve gone through. The tragic irony of this is, it’s often loneliness itself. That brings people to use technology, especially social media. They look for human connection and for support; yet all too often what they find instead are harassment and abuse.

Vivek Murthy: (27:58)
At a time where the rates of suicide, anxiety and depression are alarmingly high in our country, especially among young people, all of us have a responsibility to do everything that we can to tackle online harassment and abuse, and that’s why the work that this task force will do is so important. It’s why its recommendations are absolutely essential. We know that there are going to be many steps on the journey to protect people from harassment and abuse, and no matter what they ultimately look like, we know that there has to be accountability from those whose tools and platforms allow online abuse to occur, as well as accountability for the individuals who perpetrate this abuse. It can no longer be acceptable for a technology company to put out a product and walk away from the responsibility for how it impacts users and communities. It can no longer be okay for social media platforms to be fertile grounds for hatred. Accountability matters. Transparency matters, especially when lives and well-being are at stake. We also know that we have to expand access to mental healthcare.

Vivek Murthy: (29:03)
This has been a key priority for President Biden and Vice President Harris, and this has recently articulated in the President’s State of The Union. Many of us feel really passionately about this, but it will require taking steps to build a more diverse and larger workforce and expand access to care. It will also require us to use technology to bring care to where people are, and we cannot stop in this effort until every person who needs mental healthcare can get the care they need when they need it. Finally, each one of us, we may not have medical degrees or nursing degrees, we may not be trained as mental health therapists, but each of us can reach out and support those who are victims of online harassment and abuse. In doing so, we can help tear down the stigma and shame that so many survivors experience, shame that chips away at one’s self worth. Let us never forget that our kindness and compassion are some of the most powerful tools that we have to help each other heal. Now, this pandemic that we are living through, it’s been costly.

Vivek Murthy: (30:06)
It’s been painful, we all know that, but it’s also given us an opportunity to reassess the challenges that we face and to ask ourselves a fundamental question, what kind of society do we want to be? I believe that this is a moment where we are called to build a culture that rejects online harassment, it said insists on treating each other with dignity, respect, and kindness, both online and offline. When I think about the people that I’ve met who are struggling, people who are struggling with all the consequences of online abuse, I’m reminded that we don’t have a moment to lose. Each day when I leave home and I give my four and five-year-old a hug goodbye, I think about the future that awaits them. Like you, I want that future for all our children to be safe and to be secure. All of you here are the ones who give me hope, because you are lending your voice. You’re using your courage. You are advocating for the change that we need, and that is what will help create a safer world for my kids, for your kids and for all of us. Thank you very much.

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