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Don't let the trolls win: SXSW needs to make its events "civil and respectful," not duck the online abuse conversation

After backlash and boycott threats, the festival reconsiders its approach to handling threats and harassment

Mary Elizabeth Williams
October 28, 2015 7:16PM (UTC)

It really shouldn't take a deluge of outrage over the legitimate concerns from people tired of enduring a hostile climate. It shouldn't take a threatened withdrawl from big-name participants. It really shouldn't be, oh hey, I guess we were so busy congratulating ourselves on our "strong community management" we forgot to actually come out do something for the people being targeted. But anyway, thanks for what appears to be a step in the right direction, South By Southwest.

On Monday, Austin's venerable SXSW festival announced it was canceling two scheduled panels for the 2016 event — "SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community" and "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games" -- citing "numerous threats of on-site violence related to this programming." As "Level Up" panelist Randi Harper shared on Twitter, the fest specifically communicated that their panel had received threats. The organizers of SavePoint, meanwhile, posted a statement acknowledging that "We’ve been overwhelmed with both support and disdain" and that SXSW had "received countless emails, phone calls, tweets, and messages across all social media both praising and condemning them for #SavePoint and the Level Up panel," but that the cancellation had come as "a shock." They did not say their panel or panelists had been threatened. (For more background on the panel selection, Arthur Chu has written a deeper examination.)


In announcing the cancellations, SXSW's Hugh Forrest said that "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." And as many people then quickly pointed out, that sounds like a pretty cowardly refusal to address the problem of harassment and threats, and a profoundly insulting blanket statement that doesn't question the source of the harassment and threats.

Buzzfeed soon issued a statement announcing that it hoped SXSW would reinstate both panels, adding, "We will feel compelled to withdraw [from our events] 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." Vox Media did likewise, with CEO Jim Bankoff saying it "will not be participating in this year’s festival unless its organizers take this issue seriously and take appropriate steps to correct. We will work to find an alternative forum for this conversation and invite others who feel the same to join us."

SXSW followed up with a Tuesday statement that "We want the SXSW community to know that we hear and understand your frustrations and concerns about the recent cancellation of two SXSW Gaming panels," saying it was now "working with local law enforcement to assess the various threats received regarding these sessions" and "evaluating several programming solutions as we continue to plan for an event that will be safe, meaningful and enjoyable for all involved." Then on Tuesday evening, Re/code's Noah Kulwin reported that the fest was now "considering an all-day event that focuses primarily on combating online harassment," with an announcement expected by the end of the week. Re/code says that the "Level Up" panelists have not confirmed whether they are participating at the 2016 event in any capacity. Randi Harper tweeted Tuesday, "I'll update you all if there's news. Right now, there is no news." 


So it appears SXSW is making some tentative moves toward being marginally less crappy than they were earlier this week. Great. Keep going. I don't envy any organization tasked with the responsibility of keeping large groups of people safe from crackpots, especially in the gun-friendly great state of Texas. But SXSW has still not come out with a strong statement condemning the sick bullying behind their original decision in the first place. It has acknowledged that the "Level Up" panel was targeted but has not made it clear that is not the fault of the panel if violent clowns want to threaten it. And if does intend to do an event examining how to combat and prevent online harassment, maybe it could start by looking at its own shoddy, insufficient actions.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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