SXSW (Finally) Responds to Panel Cancellation Backlash, Announces Day-Long Summit

Mark Davis/Getty Images for SXSW
A general view of atomsphere at the 2013 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival held at the Auditorium Shores on March 15, 2013 in Austin, Texas. 

SXSW received a lot of heat this week after two panels addressing the issues of online harassment in the gaming community were canceled following threats of violence aimed at the conference's organizers, with both Buzzfeed and Vox threatening to pull out of the festival completely if the panels were not reinstated. Today, SXSW addressed those concerns and backtracked on their decision by announcing a full-day Online Harassment Summit, acknowledging their decision to pull the panels was the wrong one and inviting many of the original participants to join in the full-day, live-streamed discussion on March 12.

"By canceling two sessions we sent an unintended message that SXSW not only tolerates online harassment but condones it, and for that we are truly sorry," SXSW director Hugh Forrest wrote in a letter published to their web site. "While we made the decision in the interest of safety for all of our attendees, canceling sessions was not an appropriate response... It is clear that online harassment is a problem that requires more than two panel discussions to address. To that end, we’ve added a day-long summit to examine this topic."

The controversy began Monday, when SXSW Interactive released a statement saying that due to "numerous threats of on-site violence related to this programming," the organization was canceling the "SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community" and "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games" panels. Perry Jones, Mercedes Carrera and Lynn Walsh from the "SavePoint" panel and Randi Harper, Katherine Cross and Caroline Sinders from the "Level Up" discussion were invited to participate in the Harassment Summit, as well as 19 additional speakers that have so far been confirmed, with more additions to follow.

Prior to SXSW's announcement this afternoon, designer and researcher Caroline Sinders wrote in a lengthy post on Slate that not long after she and others submitted "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games" to SXSWi for consideration, their concerns began to grow that Gamergate would hijack the process. According to Sinders, the panel was to focus on design-related solutions to preventing harassment, and not the scandal itself.

Even so, a Reddit thread to down-vote "Level Up" was started, but SXSW reps told them not to worry, that public voting only counts for 30 percent of the process.

Sinders writes that she also reached out to SXSW with concerns over security and crowd control in the event that her panel was selected. She relayed some information about how intense the Gamergate "fandom" can be (trolls sent a SWAT team to her mom's house one time), but they responded saying the public comments didn't seem "overtly negative, threatening, or harassing" and that, "our policy with proposals is that the more of a dialogue around ideas the better."

A week later, however, the "Level Up's" PanelPicker entry was filled with dozens of mostly negative comments and so it was disabled. At that point Gamergate was in the midst of submitting its own panel, but again SXSW tried to downplay it. "They can put it together all they want," a rep wrote in another email. "But, we are already aware of what's going on and how they are treating their fellow PanelPicker proposal submitters, i.e. you, which is a great case of them getting rejected automatically."

The rep continued: "So, just let them think they can pull this all together, and bask in the glory of knowing that it's all in vain."

Then in early October Sinders and her colleagues were notified that "Level Up" had been selected along with a more overtly Gamergate-related discussion called "Save Point: A Discussion on the Gaming Community." That panel looks to have been originally organized by Gamergate (including the person behind the @GamerGateTweets Twitter account), but was later passed to The Open Gaming Society to develop.

Sinders immediately emailed SXSW with questions about security and stated her "feelings of slight fear and apprehension around" Gamergate's panel being chosen. A week and two phone calls later, the rep responded by saying that SXSW's "big tent" was big enough for both sides. "If everyone shared the same viewpoint, that would make for a pretty boring event," the rep said.

Sinders wrote back that "in light of the past events and given the ongoing security concerns my panelists and I are all facing, security needs to be present at the panel. This is mainly to make sure that our talk does not get derailed, which has happened in the past, particularly around the topics of harassment and gaming."

After the decision to cancel the panels earlier this week, the Open Gaming Society released a statement that said the "entire thing grew out of control very quickly and was more intense than anything that [SXSW] have had to deal with."

The announcement of the Online Harassment Summit today will mark SXSW's final statement on the cancellations. "Online harassment is a serious matter and we stand firmly against hate speech and cyber-bullying," Forrest's post continued. "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. SXSW strives to bring a diverse range of voices together to facilitate meaningful dialogue in an atmosphere of civility and respect. Given the nature of online harassment, we will continue to work closely with the authorities and safety experts while planning for SXSW 2016."


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