SXSW faces backlash, media boycotts after axing panels

Media outlets are bailing on SXSW after two gaming and online harassment panels were axed due to threats.

Image via shelbysdrummond / Flickr. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license
Image via shelbysdrummond / Flickr. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license

South by Southwest Interactive is facing backlash from media outlets for its decision to cancel two gaming and online harassment panels due to "threats of on-site violence."

Although information about the severity of the threats and who they are coming from has not been disclosed, media outlets including BuzzFeed and Vox Media, The Verge’s parent company, are saying they will withdraw their participation from the Austin-based media festival unless SXSW reverses its decision.

The canceled panels include "SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community," including former supporters of Gamergate – an online social movement that has generated news headlines for alleged threats made against women developers, critics, and journalists; and "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games," which involved women panelists who had previously been targets of harassment.

In a letter to SXSW director Hugh Forrest, which BuzzFeed published on its own site, the media outlet said on Tuesday that it was "disturbed" to learn that the panels were canceled in response to the sort of harassment they sought to highlight.

"We are hoping that they'll reinstate the panels, and [we] have offered to help them tackle their security concerns if need be," Weesie Vieira, BuzzFeed’s editorial communications director, told PRWeek via email.

Game industry pros agree with BuzzFeed’s stance. The International Game Developers Association’s executive director Kate Edwards said she hopes SXSW will reconsider its decision.

"I think [cutting the panels] was a little bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater," said Edwards. "The anti-harassment panel looked to me to be filled with good advice for things that anyone should know about the issue surrounding online harassment – not just about women in the gaming industry or just about one specific issue like Gamergate."

She added that Gamergate is an issue the gaming industry needs to address and think about, particularly "allowing voices to be heard and women and [multicultural] people to participate without the threat of harassment."

To contend with this issue, the International Game Developers Association has an online harassment resource center it created over a year ago, as well as partnerships with groups like the Cybersmile Foundation, which aims to stop bullying and harassment online.

What SXSW needs to do next
Steve Swasey, SVP and head of global corporate communications for game maker Kabam, explained that SXSW must not appear as if it is cowering to the people making threats.

"No effective leader manages from a position of fear and if you truly believe in doing justice in the world, you will fight for it," he said.

Swasey compared the SXSW dilemma to the threats Sony Pictures Entertainment faced last year from hackers urging the company and its distributors to not show the film The Interview.

"In that case, independent theater owners chose to show The Interview and people chose to show up," said Swasey. "At the same time, major chains backed out."

He said Sony’s decision to distribute the movie to those who would play it was an example of "fearless leadership."

"You need to be fearless in dealing with some of these threats," said Swasey. "I am not suggesting that SXSW isn’t – I am just not seeing that it is."  

Going forward, Swasey said SXSW must be as transparent as possible with constituents about the threat, specifically about its severity and from whom it came.

"They have to disclose if they engaged law enforcement, if they’ve tried to ferret out the critics, and if they’ve tried to broker an understanding," he said. "You always want to show that sometimes you lose, but you are serving constituents with their best interest."

PR and marketing pros were sounding off on Twitter on Tuesday in response to the panels’ cancelation.

This story was updated on October 28 to clarify the stances of the participants on the panels.

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