SXSW Considers All-Day Forum On Internet Harassment

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After SXSW saw the response to their decision to cancel a panel about online harassment due to the barrage of threats they received, as well as their accompanying decision to cancel a panel featuring multiple Gamergate-affiliated speakers, SXSW Interactive Director Hugh Forrest posted an update last night saying the conference was “working with local law enforcement to assess the various threats” and “evaluating several programming solutions.” Re/code reports that sources on SXSW’s staff said the conference is considering an all-day forum devoted to combatting online harassment.

This about-face might seem sudden, given the known issues that SXSW has faced with regard to ballooning security costs, as well as their stated reasons that hosting these panels would eat up too many department resources. However, as reported yesterday, BuzzFeed announced their intention to withdraw all of their panels from SXSW if these two panels were not reinstated. Yesterday, Vox Media and its tech-specific site The Verge also announced their intention to withdraw their SXSW programming for the same reason.

Randi Harper, who would have appeared on “Level Up,” the cancelled anti-harassment panel, urged her peers not to back out of their SXSW appearances:

Other SXSW panelists made their disapproval known without withdrawing their own programming, such as Chris Kluwe, who still plans to attend, but described at length what he perceived as “cowardice” on the part of the SXSW staffers. Congresswoman Katherine Clark, who has previously advocated that the FBI take movements like Gamergate more seriously, penned an open letter to SXSW Interactive Director Hugh Forrest yesterday to “urge [him] to reconsider” the cancellation of the anti-harassment panel.

The consensus among many prominent voices in tech and games seemed to be that SXSW had failed to heed the security needs of its panelists, many of which were voiced well ahead of time. However, the conference’s decision to potentially reinstate the panels has not been met with universal acceptance. Given that SXSW seemed ill-equipped to handle the panels before — and given that SXSW staffers added the “Save Point” panel, featuring Gamergate-affiliated speakers, to the schedule without using the community voting process, and against the warnings of other accepted panelists — why now would this conference be considered qualified to host an all-day program combatting systemic harassment? On the one hand, it would be an opportunity to bring in more experts to discuss the topic and to provide a platform for other speakers. On the other hand …

If these panels get reinstated because it’s a brand-conscious financial decision for SXSW, that might be considered a victory for some — but it’s a somewhat depressing one.

The multiple media companies potentially withdrawing their panels, as well as celebrity panelists speaking out against SXSW, has placed a lot of pressure on the conference to find a way to host this programming. But let’s not forget that the brunt of the pressure actually ends up on the shoulders of the marginalized people slated to appear on these panels, many of whom have faced even more threats this week due to the hyper-visibility of this ongoing controversy. What’s more, placing SXSW staffers and attendees in harm’s way seems irresponsible, especially if the conference truly does lack the resources to provide adequate security.

This has become a very thorny moral dilemma, with no simple answer. This discussion has ended up serving as a microcosm for the larger problem of harassment in tech and games spaces, particularly with regard to how massive brands only seem to care about marginalized people when it’s made clear to them that it’s unpopular and financially risky not to.

(Image via SXSW)

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Maddy Myers
Maddy Myers, journalist and arts critic, has written for the Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, MIT Technology Review, and tons more. She is a host on a videogame podcast called Isometric (relay.fm/isometric), and she plays the keytar in a band called the Robot Knights (robotknights.com).