The South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin has cancelled two panels scheduled for next March’s events after receiving threats of violence themselves after the panels were announced. The two panels were SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community and Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games.
“SXSW prides itself on being a big tent and a marketplace of diverse people and diverse ideas,” wrote Hugh Forrest, SXSW Interactive Director. “However, preserving the sanctity of the big tent at SXSW Interactive necessitates that we keep the dialogue civil and respectful. If people can not 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.”
Reaction is what one might expect, with many disappointed that the event would be so easily deterred from hosting a panel.
“I’ve been receiving constant threats for a little over a year now,” wrote Randi Harper on Twitter. “SXSW dealt with it for a week.”
BuzzFeed, as a result of the cancelled panels, has pulled out of SXSW:
We will feel compelled to withdraw … if the conference can’t find a way to do what those other targets of harassment do every day — to carry on important conversations in the face of harassment,” BuzzFeed executives wrote in a letter (at the end of this post).
Buzzfeed's withdrawal was followed shortly by The Verge and its parent company Vox Media.
Pointing out that Vox Media doesn't cower in the face of harassment but instead supports its writers and soldiers through, The Verge writes:
By approving the panels in question, SXSW assumed responsibility for related controversies and security threats. By canceling the panels, they have cut off an opportunity to discuss a real and urgent problem in media and technology today.
While one of the two panels (SavePoint: A discussion on the gaming community) would appear to be a reactionary effort by the GamerGate movement, the other panel (Level up: overcoming harassment in games) was going to be hosted by Randi Harper, who has been a target of threats and harassment for her efforts to fight online abuse, including horrendous abuse from the Gamergate movement.
By canceling that panel SxSW isn't just letting the bullies win, they're also silencing those who most need to speak. This isn't, as Forrest would claim, a defense of the "big tent". The cancellation is a statement that some people don't matter, and that some voices don't need to be heard.
Furthermore, anyone who has been following the Gamergate story over the past couple years could have foreseen exactly what happened. The Gamergate movement has been using harassment, including rape and death threats, in an attempt to silence any debate on gaming and/or related topics.
So when SxSW considered having GamerGate related panels, they should have asked themselves if they had the balls to follow through.
If the answer was no then they should not have even tried.
Update: SxSW has restored the one panel, and is considering holding a day-long event on sexual harassment.
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.
We hope you will reconsider that decision, and reinstate the panels.
Digital harassment — of activists of all political stripes, journalists, and women in those fields or participating in virtually any other form of digital speech — has emerged as an urgent challenge for the tech companies for whom your conference is an important forum. Those targets of harassment, who include our journalists, do important work in spite of these threats.
BuzzFeed has participated deeply in SXSW for years, and our staffers are scheduled to speak on or moderate a half-dozen panels at SXSW 2016. We will feel compelled to withdraw them if the conference can’t find a way to do what those other targets of harassment do every day — to carry on important conversations in the face of harassment. We hope you can support the principle of free speech and engage a vital issue facing us and other constituents on the event.
Fortunately, the conference is five months away. We are confident that you can put in place appropriate security precautions between now and then, and our security staff would be happy to advise on those measures.
The Verge's statement:
Harassment is an issue Vox Media takes extremely seriously. As a digital media company, our journalists often face online harassment and find themselves on the receiving end of threats. We support our staff when they encounter this kind of abuse while continuing to do the work that can result in it, and want to continue an open dialogue about how best to do so.
By approving the panels in question, SXSW assumed responsibility for related controversies and security threats. By canceling the panels, they have cut off an opportunity to discuss a real and urgent problem in media and technology today. We have reached out to SXSW organizers and ask that they host a safe and open discussion of these issues, rather than avoid them. Vox Media will not be participating in this year's festival unless its organizers take this issue seriously and take appropriate steps to correct. We will work to find an alternative forum for this conversation and invite others who feel the same to join us.
image by WoogyChuck