SXSW Faces Backlash After Caving To Threats Against Anti-Harassment In Gaming Panels (Updated)

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jack Plunkett

Conference goers wave at a 360° video camera prototype at the SXSW Interactive Festival in March.

There will be no talk of gender-based harassment or Gamergate at next year’s upcoming South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas after the festival’s interactive sector received violent threats and subsequently pulled two panels designed to discuss online harassment in the gaming community.

SXSW sent cancellation letters to panelists for “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games” and “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community” after receiving threats of violence at the March 2016 event within a week of announcing the discussions.

SXSW Interactive’s director Hugh Forrest expressed in a statement Monday that the safety of all conference goers was the organization’s chief concern.

We had hoped that hosting these two discussions in March 2016 in Austin would lead to a valuable exchange of ideas on this very important topic.

However, in the seven days since announcing these two sessions, SXSW has received numerous threats of on-site violence related to this programming.

SXSW prides itself on being a big tent and a marketplace of diverse people and diverse ideas.

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.

Forrest did not name Gamergate — a controversial sect of the gaming community previously linked to harassing behavior — as the source of the threats. But public criticism is mounting toward the decentralized group’s involvement, and especially SXSW’s lack of security and seemingly cowing to the demands of harassers.

Since Monday’s announcement, a petition urging SXSW to reconsider is making the rounds and top digital media companies Buzzfeed and Vox Media said they won’t participate in the event unless the anti-harassment panels are reinstated.

The media outlets castigated SXSW for caving into behavior that has become rampant in all corners of the internet, but hold out hope the organization will have a change of heart and strengthen security for the panels before the festival kicks off in five months.

Vox Media was a bit more pointed in their statement, telling SXSW that it “assumed responsibility for related controversies and security threats” when it agreed to host the online harassment panels, and “by canceling the panels, they have cut off an opportunity to discuss a real and urgent problem in media and technology today.”

Buzzfeed, which first notified SXSW of its stance, wrote, “We hope you can support the principle of free speech and engage a vital issue facing us and other constituents on the event…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.”

This post has been updated with additional reporting.