As the March kickoff for the week-long South By Southwest festival approaches in 2016, the various sections – music, film and interactive – have begun announcing confirmed panels, speakers and showcases. SXSW Interactive appeared willing to host a panel on the hot-button topic of online harassment and abuse, but that plan changed Monday when a festival director officially announced that the panel, along with another tangentially related panel, had been canceled over allegations of “numerous threats of on-site violence.”
SXSW Interactive executive Hugh Forrest posted the news on the festival’s official blog, though Forrest did not confirm whether the threats were related to either panel he confirmed received the ax: “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community” and ” Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games.” After describing SXSW as a home for “diverse ideas,” Forrest also described a desire to maintain “civic and respectful” dialogue.
“If people can disagree, disagree, and embrace new ways of thinking in a safe place free from online and offline harassment, then this marketplace of ideas is inevitably in jeopardy,” Forrest wrote. “Maintaining civilized and respectful dialogue within the big tent is more important than any particular session.”
The Level Up panel was reported to have included Online Abuse Prevention Initiative founder Randi Harper as a panelist and was advertised as “a panel of experts on online harassment in gaming and geek culture, how to fight it, how to to design and how to create”. online communities turning away from harassment.”
Harper posted an alleged copy of a cancellation email sent by SXSW organizers with similar language to the public statement. The private email went so far as to mention “sessions…that focused on the GamerGate controversy,” though Harper pointed out that her panel’s description never used the G-word.
Meanwhile, the SavePoint panel’s description included topics such as “the current social/political landscape in the gaming community” and “the journalistic integrity of gaming journalists” without clarifying which social, political or ethical viewpoints would be covered. One of the creators of the panel, Perry Jones, openly posted on Reddit’s KotakuInAction last week to ostensibly link the panel to the GamerGate hashtag. He wrote:
Why isn’t the panel just called “#Gamergate?” A comment below said it best. While we’re not explicitly a GamerGate organization, we hold many of the movement’s beliefs; unethical game press, freedom of speech, free creativity and breaking the stereotype of the “white gamer”. We share these beliefs, but we are not stupid. We know that much of the mass media has portrayed GG in a very negative light, and we were concerned that any entry with the #GamerGate name on it would be immediately tossed. So before we even drafted the idea, we came up with a clever sounding title that could grab attention.
We’ve reached out to SXSW with questions about the nature of the threats, along with the apparent gap between an online threat panel being canceled around online threats, and we’ll update this report with any response.