Facing boycott threats from numerous major media outlets, the director of the South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, acknowledged Friday that he made a mistake by caving to pressure from Internet trolls and canceling two scheduled panels about online harassment within the gaming community. In place of the canceled panels, he said, SXSW will hold a daylong summit March 12, during the festival, with many high-profile speakers to address the issue in more depth.
“While we made the decision in the interest of safety for all of our attendees, canceling sessions was not an appropriate response,” SXSW Director Hugh Forrest wrote in a blog post Friday. “We have been working with the authorities and security experts to determine the best way to proceed. It is clear that online harassment is a problem that requires more than two panel discussions to address.”
The organizers of SXSW, a major annual meeting of the tech industry, announced last week that they had canceled two highly anticipated panels in response to threats of rape, animal abuse and on-site violence from the very online-harassers the panels had intended to discuss. One panel, called “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games,” was intended to combat a movement known by the hashtag #GamerGate, which emerged in August 2014 to fight efforts to make online gaming more woman-friendly. As Mother Jones describes it, “#Gamergate is essentially an escalating fight about the direction of gaming culture. It pits a group of feminists and their supporters—who advocate for expanding beyond the testosterone-fueled games that dominate the industry—against a vocal faction that is openly hostile toward their views.”
SXSW had later added a second panel, called “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community,” which featured several pro-Gamergate panelists, who were there to represent the voices of those who are best known for using violent threats and intimidation in an effort to marginalize women in the tech industry. The festival canceled both panels on Monday, citing safety reasons.
“SXSW prides itself on being a big tent and a marketplace of diverse people and diverse ideas,” Forrest wrote. “However, preserving the sanctity of the big tent at SXSW Interactive necessitates that we keep the dialogue civil and respectful. If people cannot agree, disagree and embrace new ways of thinking in a safe and secure place that is free of online and offline harassment, then this marketplace of ideas is inevitably compromised.”
The move infuriated many within the tech industry and beyond, including two major SXSW participants, BuzzFeed and Vox, who both threatened to boycott the festival if it did not find a way to address the subject of online harassment. BuzzFeed noted the irony of Forrest’s decision to cancel the panels in a statement on Tuesday:
“We were disturbed to learn yesterday that you canceled two panels, including one on harassment in gaming, in response to the sort of harassment the panel sought to highlight,” BuzzFeed said.
The pressure achieved its intended effect. Denouncing online harassment as a “menace,” the organizers of SXSW admitted that “by cancelling two sessions, we sent an unintended message that SXSW not only tolerates online harassment but condones it.” The organizers also released a long list of speakers who have signed onto the new online harassment summit, including former Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis (D), U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), noted feminist writer and director Soraya Chemaly and Monika Bickert, head of product policy for Facebook. They said the festival will “work closely with the authorities and safety experts” to defend the summit against threats of violence.
“Online harassment is a serious matter and we stand firmly against hate speech and cyber-bullying,” the SXSW organizers said in a statement. “It is a menace that has often resulted in real world violence; the spread of discrimination; increased mental health issues and self-inflicted physical harm.”
But the move has not appeased all of the activists who are working to combat online harassment in gaming. Randi Lee Harper, founder of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, expressed concerns Friday that the festival was still including pro-Gamergate panelists in its March summit. While SXSW listed her as a participant in the daylong summit, Harper is not sure she will participate and is concerned for her safety, she said in a series of tweets.
Harper, who has been personally targeted with threats of rape and violence for her participation in the Gamergate discussion, was particularly distressed to hear that the very people trying to silence female voices through threats and harassment — almost all of whom are men — would be invited to speak at the summit, creating a potentially dangerous situation for her and any other female panelists.
Other Level Up panelists expressed similar sentiments. Citing safety concerns, Caroline Sinders, an IBM Watson interaction designer and one of Harper’s fellow panelists, said in a Twitter statement that the structure of the newly scheduled summit — particularly the inclusion of pro-harassment panelists at an anti-harassment forum — “seems like further proof that SXSW does not understand harassment or how to produce a safe, inclusive, and tolerant space for speakers and attendees.”
To put these safety concerns into context, several women targeted during the height of the Gamergate controversy were forced to cancel public events and even flee their homes due to threats of mass shootings and murder. The series of tweets below was directed at Brianna Wu, a developer who created a game. Though she has previously written about harassment of women in the gaming industry, this particular series of disturbing death threats came after Wu shared a meme making fun of Gamergate.
Wu ended up calling the police, and in a later tweet said that she and her husband had relocated to “somewhere safe.”
Ultimately, the success of the online harassment summit — and potentially the future of the event — will depend largely on its organizers and how much they are willing to support women in the tech field, said Aminatou Sow, co-founder of Tech LadyMafia.
“It will be critical for them to take time to address the mistakes they made in the lead-up to the event,” said Sow. “Too often, harassment is blamed solely on online trolls. But what also needs to be discussed is the entire tech industry’s role in minimizing women’s experiences both on and offline.”