The Dramatic Saga of SXSW's Online Harassment Summit

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The Dramatic Saga of SXSW's Online Harassment Summit

South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) is a collection of panels, sessions and other events that are intended to “spark new ideas and carve the path for the future of each ever-evolving field.” As a result, there are panels with topics that range from food to robots to gaming to medical technology. This year, the event is planned for Mar. 11-15 in Austin, Texas.

On Monday, Oct. 26 2015, SXSWi made the call to cancel two sessions for the 2016 event: SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community and Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games. On Oct. 30, the panels were on the schedule and they brought friends.

The climate that provides context for the cancelation of the panels and the outrage that followed is the event and subsequent controversy known as “GamerGate.” Without getting too far into the depths of the issue, it’s been described by The Washington Post as “an Internet culture war,” obviously something very far from a blog post about an independent gaming journalist and an angry ex-boyfriend in 2014. For more on GamerGate, you can read this opinion piece from our Games Editor.

The point being is that the games and tech industry has become divided across the internet. The primary “sides” end up being that some people defend that “GamerGate” is really just about how having ethics in gaming journalism, while other people say that threats of violence in response to gaming reviews implicates a toxic culture toward women and minorities that should be questioned and viewed with scrutiny.

As much as we’d all probably like to put it behind us, the issue has become such an important piece of dialogue in the industry that SXSWi decided to offer two panels to address the conversation this year. The festival took a very straightforward approach: one panel for each “side” of the debate. The panel SavePoint purported to discuss “the journalistic integrity of gaming’s journalists.” The other panel, Level Up, would discuss “online harassment in gaming and geek culture, how to combat it, how to design against it and how to create online communities that are moving away from harassment.”

However, the internet hate machine rolled on. On Oct. 26, the cancelation of these panels was announced. A statement made said that “SXSW has received numerous threats of on-site violence related to this programming.” It was said that SXSW strives to make “dialogue civil and respectful.”

Since it appeared that was not possible, the panels were canceled because “maintaining civil and respectful dialogue within the big tent is more important than any particular session.” It seems there are a lot of sessions and ideas at SXSW and this one wasn’t worth the trouble it caused.

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But the story went on from there. Publications like Buzzfeed and Vox Media threatened to withdraw their usual media presence at SXSW after word of the cancelation got out. Their logic was that this issue was about more than a panel—it was issue of freedom of speech. If SXSW canceled a panel in response to threats, then it reinforces that threats are an effective way to silence speech.

Buzzfeed specifically stated that the panel about harassment was important because “targets of harassment, who include our journalists, do important work in spite of these threats.” They cited their threat to withdraw as a statement in defense of journalists. Vox made a similar statement saying “our journalists often face online harassment and find themselves on the receiving end of threats.”

On Oct. 27 2015, SXSW made another statement saying that “we hear and understand your frustrations and concerns about the recent cancelation of two SXSW Gaming panels.” On Oct. 30 (four days after the original cancelation) SXSW announced that “we made a mistake” going on to say that by canceling the panels they sent an “sent an unintended message that SXSW not only tolerates online harassment but condones it.” They’ve now decided to add a full day summit to address the issue of online harassment.

This Online Harassment Summit plans to shine a “light on one of society’s darker truths—online hate.” The sessions have titles like “Combating Online Hate with Compassion” and “To Catch a Troll.” and both of the original panels have been reinstated as well.

Basically a whole lot of things happened that got magnified by the bullhorn of internet activism and the endlessly renewable resource of perpetual outrage. SXSW did a thing, got threats, stopped the thing, realized the trolls couldn’t win, and then reinstated the thing. In fact, the final result is that there is an even larger discussion that what would have occurred without all the drama. In the end, freedom of speech triumphed because SXSW wouldn’t back down. We’ll have to wait until the actual summit to see what it’s like, but at the very least it should make for a very interesting set of events and panels.

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