SXSW: 'We made a mistake' cancelling online harassment panels

The festival's organizers have reversed course, deciding to devote an entire day to online harassment after previously cancelling two sessions on the topic due to threats.

Denouncing online harassment as a "menace," the organizers of South by Southwest Interactive apologized on Friday for cancelling two sessions on the topic at next year’s festival due to unspecified threats.

They also announced a day-long summit to explore the issue.

"Earlier this week, we made a mistake. By cancelling two sessions, we sent an unintended message that SXSW not only tolerates online harassment but condones it, and for that we are truly sorry," the organizers said in a blog post on Friday. Simply titled the Online Harassment Summit, the panel will be free to live-stream, as well.

The group explained that the initial decision to cancel the sessions was "in the interest of safety for all of our attendees." However, the organization is working with security experts on the panel.

More than two dozen speakers are expected to attend the summit, including current and former legislators, educators, advocacy group leaders, and the CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League. The reinstated panels are called "SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community" and "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games."

SXSW also clarified that its organization is "firmly against hate speech and cyber bullying," which it said could lead to devastating outcomes like real-world violence, discrimination, and self-inflicted harm.

After SXSW cancelled two panels on online harassment last week, media outlets including BuzzFeed and Vox Media said they would withdraw their participation from the Austin, Texas-based media festival unless it reversed course.  

Communications experts said the festival needed to demonstrate it was not cowering to people making threats.

"You need to be fearless in dealing with some of these threats," said Steve Swasey, SVP and head of global corporate communications for game-maker Kabam. "I am not suggesting that SXSW isn’t; I am just not seeing that it is."

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