SXSW Announces Online Harassment Summit After Cancelling Panels Due to Threats

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“Earlier this week we made a mistake.”

In a press release issued Friday, SXSW Interactive apologized for their handling of threats against certain panels received in the week following the announcement of the schedule. Though this development is encouraging, the initial response to these threats by such an important name in tech deserves another look.

Being a woman on the internet can be dangerous – especially if you dare to use your platform to call out sexism or harassment. In 2013, Burnt Orange Report waded into a conversation about sexist advertising in the craft beer community. As a result of our reporting, I was personally told to “suck start a glock” by an especially irate beer drinker on Twitter.

When it comes to online harassment, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

For the women trying to push back against sexism and harassment in the tech industry, things can get downright terrifying. Women have been forced into hiding as a result of violent threats to their bodily autonomy and very lives, all because they refuse to stay silent about the rampant sexism that they see – especially those who want to create this dialogue within the gaming community.

Without fail, these threats consistently and inadvertently reaffirm the necessity of these conversations in the first place. If the response to the suggestion that sexism in tech, gaming, and the geek community in general is harmful and even dangerous is to issue such serious threats as to warrant police protection, then we really have a problem that cannot be ignored.

SXSW Interactive’s 2016 schedule was slated to feature two panels that explicitly deal with harassment in these communities. One panel, called “Level Up,” would focus on how developers can utilize design techniques and interfaces to reduce the incidence of harassment within a given game. The other, “Save Point,” would “discuss the ‘social/political landscape in the gaming community,'” the Washington Post reported.

Within seven days of announcing the panels, SXSW Interactive received enough credible threats to suggest that “strong community management” required them to cancel both panels. Not only were panelists frustrated with the handling of this decision, they were also confused by a disconnect between the response to these threats and requests by panelists for tighter security.

According to the Washington Post’s coverage of the unfolding incident, panelists warned SXSW that there could be a risk of harassment during the panels. When they asked about the possibility of implementing increased security measures for panelists, such as a safe word, SXSW sent this response:

    We appreciate your thoughts and always welcome feedback from our community. That said, SXSW is a big tent and we strongly believe in showcasing a very diverse range of ideas and opinions, even if we as a staff don’t always agree with them. If everyone shared the same viewpoint, that would make for a pretty boring event.

In their initial response and cancellation of the panels, SXSW made it clear that this commitment to the “big tent” was more important than finding a way to foster this dialogue about harassment. Their October 26th press release explained: “SXSW prides itself on being a big tent and a marketplace of diverse people and diverse ideas…On occasions such as this one, this community necessitates strong management to survive. Maintaining civil and respectful dialogue within the big tent is more important than any particular session.”

After an outcry from the tech community, and the news that Buzzfeed and Vox Media would refuse to participate in SXSW Interactive following the cancellation of these panels, SXSW changed its tune.

On October 30th, they announced a full-day initiative focused on addressing the issue of online harassment. Not only will it include panelists from the previously cancelled panels, but it will feature a long list of experts and advocates including former State Senator Wendy Davis and Brianna Wu, the Head of Development for Giant Spacecat, who found herself the target of Gamergate harassment when she dared to tweet about it in 2014.

SXSW will also be live-streaming the event to the public free of charge.

While this is certainly a step in the right direction, and will hopefully yield fruitful dialogue about what we can do as a community to address this systemic harassment against women online, this entire debacle has made it clear that we have a very long way to go. If threats of violence in the response to the mere announcement of these panels could cause a well-respected festival like SXSW to make abrupt changes to their slated schedule, imagine the impact these threats have on the individuals who face them every day.

Onling harassment against the women who dare to speak out is a real and continuing problem. Hopefully SXSW will learn from this experience and become a force for good in the fight to create a safer space for all.

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About Author

Genevieve Cato

Genevieve Cato is a feminist activist and a native Texan. While not writing for the Burnt Orange Report, she can be found working for NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, serving as a community member of the Communications Committee for the Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity, and drinking copious amounts of pretentious local craft beers.

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