In Reversal, SXSW Festival Plans Online Harassment Event

The SXSW Interactive technology festival said Friday that it will hold an “online harassment summit” after it was criticized for bowing to threats and canceling two panels related to video games and online harassment.

Canceling the panels “sent an unintended message that SXSW not only tolerates online harassment but condones it,” SXSW Interactive Director Hugh Forrest said in a blog post.

The original inclusion of the panels triggered threats of violence against the festival. That led organizers to cancel them “in the interest of public safety,” Forrest said.

But scrapping the sessions was “not an appropriate response” and the festival is now “working with the authorities and security experts,” he said.

Both panels had been related to the online campaign dubbed “GamerGate” that began last fall, during which women were harassed for criticizing the lack of diversity in the video-game industry and women’s portrayal in it. Neither of the panels mentions GamerGate specifically.

The tech festival, held every March in Austin, Texas, attracts 33,000-plus attendees and is part of the larger SXSW extravaganza for music and film. Online media companies BuzzFeed and Vox Media had threatened to pull their panelists and moderators from the festival if the panels weren’t reinstated. Neither company responded to emails asking if they now planned to participate.

The festival said Friday that it would have a “day-long summit to examine” online harassment on Saturday, March 12. The event will be in-person and live-streamed, said Kelly Krause of SXSW’s press team.

Forrest’s post said the event would include speakers from both of the originally scheduled panels. One was called “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games,” the other “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community.” The “SavePoint” talk had been set to discuss the “current social/political landscape in the gaming community” and included speakers who shared some GamerGate concerns, such as ethics in gaming journalism. The “Level Up” panel included several women who have been subjected to harassment.

Not all the participants were comfortable with the new arrangement. Randi Harper, who had been scheduled to be on the “Level Up” panel, wrote in an emailed statement that the original panelists were “not confirmed to be speaking” at the summit after the two panels were combined into one event. Harper is the founder of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, a non-profit, according to its website.

“We were very surprised to find SXSW making GamerGate a part of the discussion about online harassment. While we fully support GamerGate being a part of SXSW Gaming, adding them to the summit creates a safety concern for many of the people who are currently scheduled to be participating,” she wrote in the statement. “It is unfortunate that SXSW still lacks an understanding of online harassment, and I have no confidence in their ability to run this summit while keeping panelists safe and providing for a productive conversation.”

Krause did not reply to an email asking for comment regarding Harper’s statement.

“We’re cautious. We want to play it by ear and see where it goes,” said Perry Jones, who had been on the “SavePoint” panel and is founder of the Open Gaming Society. Jones said that was an advocacy group that is critical of both video game journalism and “pandering” in diversity efforts in video games.

“The last thing you want is for someone somewhere to take up arms and cause on-site violence of some sort,” he said.

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