The Bumpy Road to SXSW's Online Harassment Summit
Learning the hard way
Last October, South by Southwest Interactive admitted they made a mistake. Shutting down panels featuring speakers that had been targeted, threatened, and harassed for their views was the wrong thing to do. To make amends, SXSW announced a daylong Online Harassment Summit that will take place Saturday, March 12. The activists involved hope to use the platform to prod tech giants into making the Internet a safer place.
It's hard to define #GamerGate, the hashtag that lives in any number of Internet corners both light and dark. Shireen Mitchell, founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women, calls it the cesspool. Its members range from hobbyists who genuinely want to reform gaming journalism to low-rent trolls and even violent cyber criminals, although there is no organizational structure to check any of those impulses. That instability has in the past created, and continues to create, situations where mobs – directed from image boards or subreddits – home in on conversations the community doesn't like.
That was the case in August, when user experience designer Caroline Sinders' proposed SXSW panel, Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games, and several other sessions (including Mitchell's discussion on a civil Internet and game developer Brianna Wu's talk on virtual reality) were linked to on a GamerGate subreddit called /r/KotakuInAction and subsequently spammed with negative comments and harassment. Factions inside the GamerGate movement then decided their ideology needed a voice during the programming. That perceived hole was filled by the SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community panel, spearheaded by a GamerGate-affiliated organization called the Open Gaming Society and its founder, Austin-based IT network specialist Perry Jones.
The move drew sharp criticism from those who had been harassed. "I need to make sure that we're all clear about this," Mitchell said of SavePoint. "It was submitted after we were under attack. This is not balance. If this is balance, you would've submitted before the attacks."
Jones, who was the "keymaster" (according to the Open Gaming Society blog) of an Austin GamerGate meetup last April, maintains his organization's panel was never meant as a counterpoint to Sinders' panel, because he didn't know about it in advance. He admits, however, that the panel was submitted in late August, toward the end of SXSW's PanelPicker process, which invites the public to vote individual panels up or down. Creating SavePoint, he said, was an effort to bring a moderate GamerGate message to SXSW.
"I try not to sit myself or the Open Gaming Society on either side of the aisle. I try my best to be neutral. I can say we agree with a lot of the ideas of GamerGate overall," Jones said. "Like freedom of creativity, more ethical gaming press, things like that. When it comes to some of the more extremist parts of GamerGate, I can say we definitely don't agree."
Arthur Chu – a columnist and public speaker, initially of Jeopardy! fame – takes issue with the concept of neutrality.
"It's pretty clear the GamerGate people want any opportunity they can to kind of gain legitimacy," he said. "Really what happened was GamerGate noticed some people they didn't like around [SXSW]'s website and put together this thing to counter us. To get in our way." Chu was asked by Mitchell and Wu to join them on a panel about a safer and saner Internet as a male ally. He said he was told by a SXSW staffer "not to worry" when he'd objected to SavePoint's inclusion back in August and that it was unlikely SavePoint would even make it through PanelPicker. It did. "Bad actors ... they love it when whoever's running the system isn't paying attention, going with the flow, because that's what they do," Chu said. "They exploit loopholes."
Chu further criticized the entire idea of the PanelPicker, which he said he wasn't aware of until the entire situation was unfolding. Had he known the panel was going up for a public vote, he said he would've declined the invitation.
"To have upvotes and downvotes ... that doesn't really tell you anything much, other than who's already got social media clout and can rally people," Chu said. "But what really bothered me ... is the lack of engagement once stuff started happening."
There's no question that, at least initially, the Conference was stunned by the turn of events. SXSW Interactive Director Hugh Forrest said he and his staff had actually discussed GamerGate at their opening retreat last year. Forrest said "hindsight is 20/20," though he wishes they would have talked about it more. In reaction to a flood of hateful comments and serious threats sent to Interactive directly, they cut the two besieged panels entirely.
"The reaction regarding the late October cancellation of the two gaming-related sessions was unprecedented," Forrest said. "Moreover, this impassioned response helped us understand that embracing this problem of online harassment was a more appropriate response than distancing ourselves from it."
After an outcry that accused Interactive of letting the mobs win, they issued their mea culpa. But instead of restoring everything, the Festival tried to bring everyone back to the table with the daylong harassment summit, including the GamerGate-affiliated SavePoint panel, which was now being rejected by all relevant stakeholders. And that's how we get to Saturday's programming. Jones took a poll of the Open Gaming Society, which was overwhelmingly not in favor of modifying its panel to fit in with the summit's raison d'être. And the activists who GamerGate loves to call "social justice warriors" were not shy in telling Interactive they felt unsafe.
"I think it speaks to SXSW's lack of perspective about the subject," offered Wu. "Going into this, they clearly thought it was just another – 'Oh, right versus left situation. We'll let everybody say their piece.' And I think it really belied their lack of understanding about what GamerGate was to give them that channel.
"I work with the biggest conferences on Earth routinely," she added. "I work with Grace Hopper [Celebration of Women in Computing], I work with GDC [Game Developers Conference], I work with PAX [Penny Arcade Expo]. South by Southwest is the worst experience I've ever had in getting together a panel of speakers."
SavePoint was eventually moved back to the gaming segment. And now Mitchell, Wu, and Sinders can move on to the work of using SXSW's reach and influence to bring tech giants to the table and effect real, immediate change for women in tech. (Chu reiterated to the Chronicle that he has a "bad taste" in his mouth and won't be in attendance.)
"The reason that we have the problem that we have right now is that we've allowed the tech industry, the tech space, the social media space, to be dominated by the culture of which white males are comfortable to say and do whatever they've been able to do for 15 years," said Mitchell. "And now, after 15 to 20 years, we're saying, 'Wait, stop, we're going to include everyone else.' And they're going, 'You're removing me.' No. It's built on you. We're including everyone else.
"Them being uncomfortable and me being comfortable is a problem," said Mitchell. "But them being comfortable and me being uncomfortable is normal for them."
Through all the frustrations, it's been important for the activists involved to maintain a relationship with SXSW. The hope is that they can leverage the Festival's influence to provoke real changes in tech. Wu stresses that she does not want to hear from Facebook or Twitter merely that they care about harassment. She'd like Twitter to begin working on banning IPs so the same computer can't continually use the site as a platform to harass. Sinders, a user experience designer, said she has proposals to help advance the safety of women in tech right now.
"You can solve a lot of these problems through UI [user interface]," she said. "Please email me. I'm ready to give you my ideas. Take them away from me."
Related EventOnline Harassment Summit
Saturday, March 12, 9:30am-6pm