SXSW to hold all-day online harassment summit after backlash over cancellation of panels

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Caitlin Dewey

Software engineer and Gamergate target Brianna Wu is will appear at the Summit. The founder of Giant Spacekat, which ...

Software engineer and Gamergate target Brianna Wu is will appear at the Summit. The founder of Giant Spacekat, which makes games with female protagonists. Photo: Getty Images

In the wake of a week-long controversy over its cancellation of an anti-harassment panel, the SXSW Interactive Festival has announced that it will not only reinstate the panel but also hold a day-long summit on the topic of online harassment.

The summit, scheduled for March 12, will include speakers such as Monica Bickert, Facebook's head of product policy; Brianna Wu, a prominent developer and Gamergate target; Mary Anne Franks, and anti-revenge porn advocate; and Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., the congresswoman who criticized SXSW's decision to cancel the panel.

"Earlier this week we made a mistake," the festival said in a statement. "By canceling two sessions we sent an unintended message that SXSW not only tolerates online harassment but condones it, and for that we are truly sorry."

How sorry, however, remains to be seen. While the anti-harassment summit includes an impressive list of women's advocates and legal experts, it will also include the original members of the cancelled Save Point panel, which is affiliated with Gamergate. Caroline Sinders, the organiser of the cancelled anti-harassment panel "Level-Up," said that SXSW never disclosed that when it approached her with the possibility of the all-day, face-saving summit.

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"We were given most of the names, but not all," Sinders said. "(We) were not aware that Save Point would be in the summit."

SXSW abruptly cancelled both "Save Point" and "Level Up" on Monday, citing safety concerns. "Level Up" focused on how design and interface choices can decrease online harassment. "Save Point," anchored by the Open Gaming Society's Perry Jones, promised to discuss the "social/political landscape in the gaming community."

While SXSW organisers insisted both panels had been cancelled because of "threats," critics were quick to dispute that claim. Sinders provided emails to The Washington Post that suggest not only had SXSW failed to adequately warn and protect panellists against threats, but that it had repeatedly ignored panellists' safety concerns before the threats happened. And Arthur Chu, the "Jeopardy!" fixture/anti-harassment advocate who had pitched his own SXSW panel about online culture, claimed in an essay for the Daily Beast that SXSW refused to protect him and others against harassment in the comments' section of their panel's pitch page, even when the comments grew defamatory.

"SXSW's actions throughout this whole ordeal have been unprofessional, self-serving, and mendacious," he wrote. "They have never really taken seriously the idea of actively working to curb harassment or keep people safe; their one consistent motivation throughout has been the opposite - exploiting people's abuse for drama and clicks."

The backlash has, predictably, been swift: Buzzfeed and Vox Media, which owns the tech sites the Verge and Re/code, both promised to boycott the 2016 conference if SXSW didn't rethink the cancellations. At a conference Tuesday, advertising executive Cindy Gallop urged "every single agency and brand" to avoid SXSW. And Clark, the congresswoman, sent a letter to conference director Hugh Forrest, encouraging him to "stand behind" victims of online violence by reinstating the anti-harassment session.

"I urge you to consider the impact of this decision, how it relates to the future of digital media, its economic promise, and our collective obligation to ensure equal participation in it," Clark wrote. "Our message to targets of online threats and harassment should not be that the Internet is closed to their voices."

Washington Post