Public backlash against SXSW decision to cancel two panels relating to Gamergate

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Discussion of online harassment brought down by online harassment

By Brittney MacDonald, Life & Style Editor

The geek subculture has never been under public scrutiny more than now, and with movements like Gamergate and Cosplay is Not Consent, conventions have been attempting to revamp how they both see and deal with issues of harassment. But with a community that largely communicates through the Internet, topics such as sexism and acceptable behavior will always be a hot button for a flood of negative energy—case in point, South by Southwest (SXSW).

SXSW is a collection of conventions and music festivals in Austin, Texas that covers many facets of interactive media. Recently, the organization suffered backlash for announcing plans to cancel two of their upcoming panels due to threats they received. The sadly ironic thing is that these panels, which have been brought down by online harassment, were meant to discuss online harassment.

More specifically, the two panels were intended to create a discussion regarding gendered harassment both in videogames and the videogame industry. Entitled “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community,” and “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games,” both panels planned to address the events of Gamergate, with one panel offering up a debate-style discussion featuring people that were both for and against the movement.

For those of you unfamiliar, Gamergate was a controversial movement that began in August 2014. The movement was against the recent surge of critique centred on issues of sexism and progressivism (a philosophical title for a broad idea regarding issues of social growth within society) in the videogame subculture. Gamergate is most known as the catalyst that led to the harassment of many women within the videogame industry. Radical supporters of the movement released private information containing both the home and work addresses of various female programmers, developers, designers, community administrators, and streamers (people who record themselves playing games online). People who spoke up against this behavior also became targets. This lead to threats of violence, rape, and murder—even forcing some women to move once their home addresses became compromised.

The Gamergate movement has largely died down, though radical supporters are still out there—most recently making threats towards Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when he spoke out advocating feminism, specifically addressing Gamergate as a reason why more men need to support it.

SXSW claims that threats of on-site violence were the reason they decided to cancel the two panels, but the decision has not gone unopposed. Buzzfeed, an Internet media company that has prominence at the various conventions and shows, answered the news by saying that they would withdraw from any and all SXSW programming in 2016 if the decision was not revoked. In a letter published on their website Buzzfeed stated, “BuzzFeed has participated deeply in SXSW for years, and our staffers are scheduled to speak on or moderate a half-dozen panels at SXSW 2016… We will feel compelled to withdraw them if the conference can’t find a way to do what those other targets of harassment do every day—to carry on important conversations in the face of harassment. We hope you can support the principle of free speech and engage a vital issue facing us and other constituents on the event.”

As of yet, the two panels remain cancelled. Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive, released a statement in support of the decision, claiming: “If people cannot 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 [meaning SXSW] is inevitably compromised. … Maintaining civil and respectful dialogue within the big tent is more important than any particular session [panel].”

Forrest’s “greater good” reasoning has done little to impress the public, mostly due to the fact that the two panels’ intended purpose was to create that meaningful dialogue he seems to think the panels’ removal is maintaining.

In any case, SXSW has five months to change their mind before Buzzfeed removes its employees from the festival’s programming.