SXSW Faces More Controversy Over Online Harassment Panel Fracas

Even as the organizers of the South By Southwest Interactive festival announced Friday a daylong panel on online harassment to take place at next year’s event, a few of those panelists involved said they had not confirmed that they would, in fact, come to the Austin conference.

Panelists on “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games” said they were uncomfortable sharing the day with those involved with another panel entitled “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community,” because SavePoint panelists had supported Gamergate activists. Some of those activists have made violent threats against women in the gaming community since the Gamergate controversy exploded a year ago.

“We support SavePoint being in the gaming tract of SXSW but having their panel [participate] in the anti-harassment [event] creates multiple security concerns for new speakers as well as attendees,” Caroline Sinders, an IBM Watson interaction designer and one of the Level Up panelists, said in a Twitter statement. “This just seems like further proof that SXSW does not understand harassment or how to produce a safe, inclusive and tolerant space for speakers and attendees.”

Other Level Up panelists expressed similar sentiments. “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,” said Randi Harper, founder of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, in a Re/code article.

Both Sinders and Harper were named by SXSW Friday as participants in the daylong harassment summit.

The conflict continues the crisis affecting the internationally known tech festival, which began in 1994. SXSW began as a small “multimedia” event and eventually blossomed to attract about 30,000 people to downtown Austin, with keynote speakers such as Julian Assange and Elon Musk, and the launch of global brands like Twitter.

The controversy began a week ago when Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive, announced that the festival was canceling the two panels – Level Up and SavePoint — because of unspecified threats to panel members. That announcement set off a social media firestorm accusing the organization of censorship or cowardice in the face of threats. The decision to bring back both panels during a daylong summit that would focus on online harassment issues was the result of that backlash.

Gamergate began last year as a controversy over ethics in gaming journalism and erupted into a social media war on online harassment. While some gamers said they should not be silenced by speech police, others said language that is harassing or that encourages harassment should not be allowed. During this back and forth, many women who were especially vocal about the harassing language like Harper were threatened themselves.

So far, SXSW has not issued a response regarding the statements from Sinders and Harper saying they can’t confirm participation. Forrest could not be reached for comment.

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