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SXSW considers harassment conference after pulling game panels over threats of violence

One panel on online harassment, the other on "integrity of gaming's journalists".

Austin-based multimedia festival SXSW could be adding an all-day event focused on combatting online harassment following the backlash it's received after canceling two gaming-related panels due to threats of violence.

One panel was focused on online harassment in the video games industry, while the other was about the "social/political landscape in the gaming community" and "integrity of gaming's journalists". Naturally, these were hot-button issues.

To be clear, here is the description of Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games:

"A panel from experts on online harassment in gaming and geek culture, how to combat it, how to design against it, and how to create online communities that are moving away from harassment. The panel will dive into data around abuse in larger gaming communities. One of our panelists will talk about about ways to actually develop the social aspects of games - including UI decisions and how they can influence accuracy and usage of reporting abuse. Another will dive into UX design choices to stymy harassment in social media spaces."

And here's the description for SavePoint - A Discussion on the Gaming Community:

"The panel will focus heavily on discussions regarding the current social/political landscape in the gaming community, the journalistic integrity of gaming's journalists, and the ever-changing gaming community, video game development, and their future. We will encourage honest critique and open dialogue between panelists and audience members, and will attempt to create a space where we can all speak on the social-political issues."

SXSW interactive director Hugh Forrest offered the following statement on why these panels were being cancelled:

"We had hoped that hosting these two discussions in March 2016 in Austin would lead to a valuable exchange of ideas on this very important topic.

"However, in the seven days since announcing these two sessions, SXSW has received numerous threats of on-site violence related to this programming.

"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.

"Over the years, we are proud of the healthy community of digital innovators that has formed around SXSW. On occasions such as this one, this community necessitates strong management to survive. Maintaining civil and respectful dialogue within the big tent is more important than any particular session."

SXSW 2015.

Overcoming Harassment in Games panelist Randi Harper, who specialises in cyber security at the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, a nonprofit "dedicated to reducing and mitigating online abuse", wasn't happy about SXSW's decision.

"They aren't really watching out for the safety of panelists, as they were very dismissive when we told them about our own safety concerns," Harper said in an email to Eurogamer. "They didn't take safety seriously until SXSW itself was threatened by the same people that target us."

"We had been having a conversation with them about security concerns, and we warned them early on in the application process of precisely what happens when we have a public appearance," she added. "I don't think they really understood the full impact of what we were telling them, and that tends to be the trend when a conference hasn't had to deal with these types of complications in the past. We're all pretty experienced when it comes to events and physical safety, so it was disappointing when SXSW opted to cancel our talk versus asking our advice. I always recommend that conferences reach out to us if they have any concerns. This feels like a hasty decision with little thought behind it."

Congresswoman Katherine Clark likewise spoke out against SXSW's decision to pull these panels. "The brave women who were part of this panel are ready to speak out about the importance of combatting online threats despite being the targets themselves. By canceling the panel, SXSW has assisted those who wish to silence women by threatening violence," she stated in a letter to SXSW that she posted on Facebook.

"For the millions of women and girls who use the internet every day to navigate their jobs and personal lives, online violence is not only emotionally devastating; it also curtails their professional opportunities and their full participation in the economy. We should be amplifying the voices of those willing to speak, not capitulating to the harassers."

Vox Media and Buzzfeed also threatened to pull participation from SXSW unless this was changed. Now Re/code, an outlet owned by Vox Media, has reported that SXSW has reinstated the Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games panel, though it's unclear if the same panelists will wish to remain on board after this whole fiasco.

Furthermore, Re/code's sources have said that SXSW is considering hosting an all-day event about how to combat online harassment.

Until then, SXSW has issued the following statement regarding the backlash it's received since the panels were cancelled:

"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.

"The safety of our speakers, participants and staff is always our top priority. We are working with local law enforcement to assess the various threats received regarding these sessions.

"Moving forward, we are also evaluating several programming solutions as we continue to plan for an event that will be safe, meaningful and enjoyable for all involved."

We've reached out to SXSW about its current thinking on the issue and will update should we find out more.

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