SXSW's Attempts to Address Online Harassment Reached Clusterf*ck Levels Of Embarrassment This Week
Yesterday the South By Southwest Film/Music/Interactive/Everything Entertainment Festival exhibited such high levels of Not Knowing What the Fuck It Was Doing that it became an embarrassment not just to the world of international entertainment festivals, but it was— and I say this with no hyperbole— a hopefully brief blight on the entire population of the internet.
The embarrassing nonsense began when SXSW decided to cancel two panels it had scheduled, one of which was titled “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games,” the other of which was a Gamergate response panel because no one’s allowed to have a conversation about the harm we encounter daily without being shouted at. The series of events here is as clustered as a f*ck can be, but generally seems to shake out as follows:
—The panel was pitched to SXSW, and was subjected to a completely biased and easily rigged upvote/downvote system of approval. Apparently new panel suggestions go through a public vote, on the festival’s “PanelPicker” site. The panel— even though it never once mentioned the word “Gamergate”— was targeted by GG redditors, and, as a member of another panel not about Gamergate (it was about VR in games), but featuring panelists frequently targeted by the group points out, “If you’ve ever seen a comments section after r/KotakuInAction has linked to it, it’s not a pretty sight.” The “Level Up” panel accrued almost 200 comments, when most of the panel pitches on the site get less than a handful. Again,
The panel I was on and the “Level Up” panel, even though they were about Internet harassment—and GamerGate is certainly an example of that—didn’t mention GamerGate at all, nor were they “about” GamerGate. GamerGaters found these panels and chose to make an issue of them—and again, one of them wasn’t even about harassment or abuse, it was about VR in gaming and was targeted only because GamerGaters have a personal dislike for Brianna Wu.
—Next, “Level Up” was approved, but so was “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community,” a neutrally-named panel pitched by the Gamergate community in response to the harassment panel. This was billed to be a discussion on— you guessed it!— ethics in games journalism (or, to use their new wording, “journalistic integrity”). Despite the fact that Gamergate didn’t follow the usual festival pitch procedures, in submitting late and not being exposed to the same vote system they had previously manipulated, they were approved.
—Then, by all appearances, SXSW just got too many questions thrown at it. People started asking why “SavePoint” was exempt from the festival rules. “Level Up” panelists asked about the possibility of extra security (because when your name is Brianna Wu and you’re doing a public panel, you just need extra security). The festival started receiving threats.
.@sxsw says this is "strong brand management." Well, I think canceling programming for women discussing harassment is the opposite of that.— Brianna Wu (@Spacekatgal) October 26, 2015
So, apparently to avoid the questions and the hassle of protecting controversial panelists, the festival canceled both “Level Up” and “SavePoint.” SXSW released a statement explaining the cancelation, basically summing it up as “everyone couldn’t play nice, so we took the toys away,” with generic “greater good” overtones.
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. If people can not agree, disagree and embrace new ways of thinking in a safe and secure place that is free of online and offline harassment, then this marketplace of ideas is inevitably compromised.
Over the years, we are proud of the healthy community of digital innovators that has formed around SXSW. 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.
As Chris Kluwe, in a fantastic, justifiably scathing open letter to SXSW points out, this is nothing but pure bullshit.
[You] run a festival that features A-list celebrities and tech magnates worth collective billions, superstar athletes, and some of the biggest music acts in the world, and you’re telling me you can’t provide security for a panel of three women? That it’s beyond your resources to hire any sort of police presence when you shut down entire sections of Austin at a time? That the unceasing vitriol these brave individuals face on a daily basis is just too much for your tender feelings to deal with, when you’ve experienced the merest fraction of that torrent of filth they’re forced to endure?
—Most of this happened, or came out, on Monday of this week. Yesterday, the big guns came out. And by big guns, I mean large, reputable media outlets. Buzzfeed and Vox Media both released statements that they would be boycotting the festival as long as the panels remained canceled. From Vox’s statement:
Harassment is an issue Vox Media takes extremely seriously. As a digital media company, our journalists often face online harassment and find themselves on the receiving end of threats. We support our staff when they encounter this kind of abuse while continuing to do the work that can result in it, and want to continue an open dialogue about how best to do so. By approving the panels in question, SXSW assumed responsibility for related controversies and security threats. By canceling the panels, they have cut off an opportunity to discuss a real and urgent problem in media and technology today.And BuzzFeed’s statement rang in similar notes:
We were disturbed to learn yesterday that you canceled two panels, including one on harassment in gaming, in response to the sort of harassment the panel sought to highlight.
We hope you will reconsider that decision, and reinstate the panels.
Digital harassment — of activists of all political stripes, journalists, and women in those fields or participating in virtually any other form of digital speech — has emerged as an urgent challenge for the tech companies for whom your conference is an important forum. Those targets of harassment, who include our journalists, do important work in spite of these threats.
BuzzFeed also offered their own services, which has the faint inkling of a slight burn— a reminder that hey, this is a thing people deal with and can be handled without being ignored:
Fortunately, the conference is five months away. We are confident that you can put in place appropriate security precautions between now and then, and our security staff would be happy to advise on those measures.
—Finally, later yesterday, SXSW responded to the backlash with a spectacularly overplayed hand. They are now planning a full-day forum on online harassment. “Level Up” has been offered a slot, BuzzFeed and Vox have been asked to participate, and SXSW is “working with local law enforcement to assess the various threats received regarding these sessions.” SO WE’RE COOL, RIGHT? PLEASE GUYS? (-imagined SXSW official comment.)
SXSW is an awesome gathering point of small voices and large within a number of entertainment industries. It has a reputation for being the Festival of the People, a homegrown, wacky, fun time of an arts smorgasbord. It’s all to disappointing then to see the event actually have a chance to advocate for those people, and fail so horribly. Here’s hoping it gets its “Big Tent” priorities in order and realizes it has a responsibility to actually listen to the voices of the people it purports to celebrate.
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