Amid online threats, SXSW cancels online threats panel

South by Southwest, the incredibly popular festival of hipness in Austin, Texas, is canceling two panels, even though one of them really needs to be held.

“SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community” and “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games” are being canceled because of threats of violence.

Hugh Forrest, SXSW’s interactive director said while the festival “prides itself on being a big tent and a marketplace of diverse people and diverse ideas,” the threats proved too great.

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.

The gaming community was ripped apart last year by the controversy known as “#GamerGate,” online pushback from video game players to claims that the games are often demeaning to women.

Gamers aren’t playing around. When Caroline Sinders, a researcher, interaction designer and artist, began researching online harassment, gamers sent a SWAT team to her mother’s house.

It’s very hard to determine who’s harassing you online, unless the harassment comes from a single user and happens consistently, but that’s not usually how it works online. More often, online harassment is perpetrated by a mob.

Brianna Wu, head of development at games studio Giant SpaceKat, has been harassed and threatened with rape and murder on Twitter, but not much has been done because the harassment is coming from a large number of users, who are difficult to track and stop.

Online harassment techniques are incredibly different from offline harassment, and law enforcement is not yet used to dealing with it. Legally, it’s hard to prove the actionable threats of someone saying to another person “I’m going to kill you” online. It’s hard to get court-ordered documents to track people down for harassing online, and laws vary from state to state, so it’s necessary to know where the threat originated to know how to proceed.

Arthur Chu, a gamer columnist, says SXSW made the mistake of giving GamerGaters a seat at the table to counter a panel on overcoming online harassment .

SXSW’s actions throughout this whole ordeal have been unprofessional, self-serving, and mendacious. 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 dividing line between calling attention to abuse to try to make change and turning abuse into spectacle to exploit victims of abuse and re-abuse them has been a matter of long debate and soul-searching among those of us who write GamerGate think pieces.

I’ve confronted myself with the question of whether I’m overall helping or harming by getting paid to write an op-ed about horrible things that have happened to someone else. In this account I’ve avoided providing direct links to certain things I reference for precisely that reason.

Developer Brianna Wu, one of the targets of Gamergate harassment, still has two unrelated panels scheduled at SXSW.

So does former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe.

“It’s not clear what plans, if any, SXSW initially had for dealing with online threats,” The Verge’s Adi Robertson writes today. “But whatever they were, its organizers ultimately decided that the rewards weren’t worth the hazards. Good job, internet.”

Update 11:55 a.m. – BuzzFeed announces it’s pulling out of SXSW to protest.

Related: The ultimate troll: The terrifying allure of GamerGate icon Milo Yiannopoulos (Fusion)

SXSW’s Astounding Ideals of Cowardice (Chris Kluwe)

How to end Gamergate (Slate)