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[UPDATED] SXSW Interactive Cancels Gaming Harassment Panel Due to “Threats of Violence,” Fails to See Irony

SXSW Interactive 2015

Last night, two sets of panelists scheduled to take part in discussions at SXSW 2016 learned that both of their panels had been cancelled: “SavePoint – A Discussion on the Gaming Community” and “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games.” In both cases, the panelists were informed that their panels had been removed from the schedule due to SXSW’s concerns about the public response to the panels and the resources that hosting them would require from SXSW’s staff.

Although neither panel mentions Gamergate by name in its title or description, the “Level Up” panel features multiple panelists who have been targeted by Gamergate. The “Save Point” panel got added to the schedule at a later date than “Level Up,” and some have described it as a Gamergate-affiliated response to the “Level Up” panel.

However, the “Level Up” panel had intended to discuss harassment in the gaming community in general—not just Gamergate. Katherine Cross, one of the “Level Up” panelists, told Giant Bomb:

The panel was meant to be a wide ranging discussion about how we might design websites, social media, and online games to be less susceptible to online harassment and hate mobbing. We were going to discuss various design proposals, including some already extant in the gaming industry that have been proven to work, but our panel was meant to be a solutions-oriented discussion of harassment in general.

It is unfortunate that SXSW alleged us to be “GamerGate” related. We did not mention GG in the proposal nor in the actual text of the panel description. GG is but one of many manifestations of online harassment and we did not want to get myopically bogged down in one case study, nor in re-litigating its specifics. We wanted to discuss the wider problem and solutions thereto.

Randi Lee Harper, one of the panelists on the “Level Up” panel, tweeted the following about SXSW’s provided reasoning for the panel cancellations:

Perry Jones, who would have appeared on the “Save Point” panel, wrote in a blog post that the reason his panel got cancelled as well was due to the fact that SXSW did not want “two panels (on a major topic) to absorb all of their time and resources.” Jones does not mention “threats of violence” in the reasoning for his panel’s cancellation; that seems to have only been a matter of consideration for the “Level Up” panel.

According to Jones, an SXSW representative called him on the phone and said that they had “wanted to do something interesting that hadn’t really been done before” by hosting both of these panels on the schedule. However, wrote Jones, “SXSW feels that both the organization and its staff have been under siege from all sides and from all parties since they announced the panels early this month. They want to encourage open discussions, but they don’t want to fuel a vicious online war between two sides who are extremely opposed to one another.”

The Mary Sue contacted SXSW for comment at 5:12 PM last night and has yet to receive a response; this story will be updated if that changes.

Late last night, SXSW posted a blog post titled “Strong Community Management: Why We Canceled Two Panels For SXSW 2016,” in which SXSW Interactive Director Hugh Forrest explained the con’s reasons for canceling both panels: “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 … Maintaining civil and respectful dialogue within the big tent is more important than any particular session.”

Although Forrest makes no reference to this in the post, one might speculate that another reason for SXSW’s decision could be the known issues with the security budget for this massive conference. In other words, it’s possible that SXSW simply could not accommodate the security demands presented by hosting these two panels. However, that was not the reason provided, and the statement that SXSW did provide has been met with disappointment from fans of SXSW.

Moments ago, BuzzFeed announced their intention to withdraw from SXSW if the conference does not reverse its decision to cancel these panels. Here’s an excerpt from the official statement signed by Ben Smith, EIC of BuzzFeed, Dao Nguyen, Publisher of BuzzFeed, and Ze Frank, President of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures: “We will feel compelled to withdraw [our panels] if the conference can’t find a way to do what those other targets of harassment do every day — to carry on important conversations in the face of harassment. We hope you can support the principle of free speech and engage a vital issue facing us and other constituents on the event.”

This post will be updated to reflect any further developments should they arise.

UPDATEVox Media has joined BuzzFeed by announcing their intention to pull their programming if SXSW does not reverse the decision to cancel these panels. In response, SXSW has considered reinstating the panels, and perhaps even running an all-day anti-harassment forum.

(image via SXSW Interactive)

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