SXSW Announces Online Harassment Summit

Apologizes for “unintended message” that condones harassment

SXSW Interactive Director Hugh Forrest
SXSW Interactive Director Hugh Forrest (image via Twitter)

As Austin was flooding and Twitter was flooded with warnings and closures, SXSW Interactive Director Hugh Forrest announced an Online Harassment Summit and apologized for sending “an unintended message that SXSW not only tolerates online harassment but condones it.”

This comes on the heels of days of backlash against SXSW after the cancellation of two panels: "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games" and "#SavePoint – A Discussion on the Gaming Community." That backlash included BuzzFeed and Vox Media pulling out of the festival until the situation was rectified.

According to SXSW’s statement, the Online Harassment Summit will be a daylong affair to examine the topic and will live-stream the content. Additionally the panelists from both the Level Up and #SavePoint sessions are scheduled to participate. [UPDATE: Level Up panelist Randi Lee Harper has said via Twitter that her panel is not confirmed to participate.]

The rest of the summit's speakers include security researchers, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, law professors, the head of product policy at Facebook, among others.

The list of confirmed speakers includes many of the festival’s critics, such as Congresswoman Katherine Clark and former Texas state Senator Wendy Davis, who both spoke out publicly against the cancellation of the Level Up panel, and game developer Brianna Wu, who called the events of this week “an avoidable mess.”

The apology and summit are good steps forward, but missteps continue to plague the festival. Despite the stated goal to "bring a diverse range of voices together to facilitate meaningful dialogue in an atmosphere of civility and respect,” SXSW invited the #SavePoint panelists back to the festival, undercutting the summit's goals. #SavePoint panelists Perry Jones and Mercedes Carrera both have taken pro-GamerGate stances. GamerGate is an online movement defined largely by aggressive misogyny and violent harassment. In effect SXSW has invited harassers to an anti-harassment event.

The apology also lacks any mention of recent criticisms leveled toward the festival. Since the controversy began earlier this week, several of the Level Up panelists have described their frustrations in dealing with SXSW’s organizers during the PanelPicker process which was filled with vitriol in the comments.

It gives the sense that SXSW has no grasp that this controversy has expanded beyond the mere cancellation of panels and has grown to question the way the festival approaches – or flatly disregards – the concerns of its panelists. Level Up panelist Caroline Sinders said on Slate that “SXSW created a disingenuous and potentially dangerous situation.” Arthur Chu at the Daily Beast described his experience with SXSW over the last few months: “SXSW’s actions throughout this whole ordeal have been unprofessional, self-serving, and mendacious.” None of these issues are addressed in the apology, which make one wonder if SXSW still has not taken a hard look at the institutional practices that led to this mess in the first place.

Editor's note: SXSW was co-founded by Chronicle publisher Nick Barbaro and editor-in-chief Louis Black, who continue to serve as directors of the festival.

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SXSW Interactive 2016, SXSW, GamerGate, Hugh Forrest, Level Up, SavePoint

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