The South by Southwest Interactive festival has long played a part in getting some of the best minds on the Internet together to discuss the world of technology and technology in the world. In the run-up to the 2016 event, however, SXSW has stumbled, and in doing so, aided in silencing a group of women doing important work to stop online harassment.
The panel “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games” described as “a panel from experts on 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.” Level Up was to feature “digital anthropologist” Caroline Sinders, with games writer Katherine Cross, and Online Abuse Prevention Initiative founder Randi Harper. According to Caroline, the focus of the panel was on User Interface and User Experience ideas to help prevent harassment before it starts, in contrast to most games and communities that focus on reporting and dealing with harassment after it occurs.
And, like any panel around harassment in games, it was soon the subject of harassment itself, especially from supporters of GamerGate, the online hate movement directed against women in gaming. According to a piece written in August by Caroline for Fusion discussed a GamerGate brigade to downvote her proposed panel, though she notes that SXSW “said that it would take the skewed voting on the panels into heavy consideration during the selection process.”
On October 23rd, SXSW added “SavePoint,” a panel on “the current social-political climate of the gaming community, the importance of journalistic ethics in video game journalism, and the future of the gaming community and the industry.” If the phrase “ethics in video game journalism” didn’t tip you off, SavePoint features several prominent GamerGate supporters — though not Milo Yiannopoulos — leading to safety concerns by SXSW speakers who had been victims of their alleged harassment.
On Monday, citing “numerous threats of on-site violence related to this programming,” SXSW cancelled both panels. In an email to panel organizer Caroline Sinders, SXSW makes explicit mention of GamerGate in relation to the cancellation of “Level Up”, the full text of which can be seen in the tweet below:
— Randi Lee Harper (@randileeharper) October 26, 2015
Panelist Randi Harper was quick to point out that the panel was “explicitly not about GamerGate, but instead making design decisions in abuse systems.”, a point Caroline also made mention of. On Twitter, GamerGate target Zoe Quinn revealed background information on the members of the pro-GamerGate “SavePoint” panel, revealing a planning thread on /r/KotakuInAction/, a GamerGate-linked forum on Reddit. To be clear: There is no explicit link to the “Level Up” panel, nor a confirmed link between GamerGate and the threats against SXSW.
In response to the cancellation of the panels, Arthur Chu, Daily Beast’s “nerd culture” columnist, wrote a long piece sharing his SXSW experiences. Chu had submitted a proposal to SXSW describing a panel about online culture; the panel would feature another of GamerGate’s targets, Brianna Wu, and that raised GamerGate’s ire. His piece documents a continued disregard for abuse and harassment from the SXSW team, including refusing to close the comments on the panels. It was only until, as Chu states, “…Caroline spoke up about actually having had a loved one experience a SWATting did they take it seriously enough to take the token action of closing comments.” Even though the comments were closed, the libel, slander, and vitriol were left public.
Chu also made note of irregularities around the acceptance of the “SavePoint” panel, noting
We were told “not to worry.” We were told, and I quote, “They can put it together all they want, but, we are already aware of what’s going on and how they are treating their fellow PanelPicker proposal submitters, i.e. you, which is a great case of them getting rejected automatically.”
Sinders, Quinn, Harper, and Chu also expressed concern about security in the wake up the “SavePoint” panel announcement, and all cite that their emails were ignored.
Ultimately, SXSW organizers decided both panels, despite diametrically opposed goals, were symptoms of the same disease. Claiming a need to “[preserve] the sanctity of the big tent,” SXSW has chosen to silence the important work of professionals and experts in the field of of addressing online harassment — ironically after falling victim to those same type of tactics used by GamerGate. Once again, harassment and threats show their effectiveness in silencing discussion that seeks to solve that very issue.
Fortunately, SXSW’s decision is not a popular one. Both Buzzfeed and Vox Media have threatened to withdraw their presence from SXSW if the panels are not restored. Former Pro Football player and prominent gamer Chris Kluwe wrote an angry screed against what he called the “cowardice” shown by SXSW. Even Congresswoman Katherine Clark, who has pushed to make online harassment an issue in Congress, weighed in against SXSW.
At the time of this writing, SXSW released a new statement on the cancellation claiming they “are working with local law enforcement to assess the various threats received regarding these sessions,” and “evaluating several programming solutions as we continue to plan for an event that will be safe, meaningful and enjoyable for all involved.” We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, Sinders and her co-panelists are open to other options for having the public discussion.
For more information on online harassment and prevention, check out the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, started by Randi Harper, and the Crash Override Network, an anti-harassment task force founded by GamerGate target Zoe Quinn and her partner Alex Lifshitz.