After the organizers of the SXSW conference canceled an anti-harassment panel due to "threats of violence," Vox Media is reevaluating its participation in the SXSW conference. Vox, the parent company of The Verge, says it will not be participating in this year's conference unless changes are made.
Here is Vox Media's full statement:
Harassment is an issue Vox Media takes extremely seriously. As a digital media company, our journalists often face online harassment and find themselves on the receiving end of threats. We support our staff when they encounter this kind of abuse while continuing to do the work that can result in it, and want to continue an open dialogue about how best to do so.
By approving the panels in question, SXSW assumed responsibility for related controversies and security threats. By canceling the panels, they have cut off an opportunity to discuss a real and urgent problem in media and technology today. We have reached out to SXSW organizers and ask that they host a safe and open discussion of these issues, rather than avoid them. Vox Media 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.
BuzzFeed was the first media company to scrutinize its relationship with SXSW, and had similar things to say about the conference's troubling decision to succumb to threats. "Digital harassment of activists of all political stripes, journalists, and women in those fields or participating in virtually any other form of digital speech has emerged as an urgent challenge for the tech companies for whom your conference is an important forum," BuzzFeed wrote in its letter to SXSW. "Those targets of harassment, who include our journalists, do important work in spite of these threats."
In a pattern that is becoming too familiar, efforts to curb harassment online have frequently been met with even more harassment. SXSW Interactive director Hugh Forrest said that the conference had received "numerous threats of on-site violence" in the seven days after two sessions with Gamergate associations were announced. One session, titled "Level up: overcoming harassment in games," would have been presented by Randi Harper, who has been a target of threats and harassment for her efforts to fight online abuse, including abuse from people affiliated with Gamergate. Harper would have been joined by IBM Watson interaction designer Caroline Sinders, and gaming critic Katherine Cross. These women join untold scores of others who have faced harassment and intimidation on the internet.
I've been receiving constant threats for a little over a year now. SXSW dealt with it for a week— Literally Boo (@randileeharper) October 27, 2015
The other canceled panel, titled "SavePoint: A discussion on the gaming community," appears to have been a reactionary effort from Gamergate agents to counter "anti-Gamergate" events. The panel's description eschewed naming Gamergate directly with vague references to "the current social/political landscape in the gaming community" and "the journalistic integrity of gaming's journalists." (Gamergate's ostensible mission, which has also become a pejorative meme about the movement, is to protect ethics in gaming journalism.) But the panel's promoters discussed intentionally avoiding mentioning Gamergate by name to dodge public scrutiny that could have harmed their chances of being included in a public forum. According to Arthur Chu at The Daily Beast, the SavePoint panel was a reaction to events being organized by anti-harassment advocates.
Chu also alleges that SXSW's behavior throughout the panel selection process was "unprofessional, self-serving, and mendacious." For instance, SXSW essentially selected panels through a public popularity poll that was attacked and manipulated by Gamergate agents. Conference representatives allegedly did little to control aggressive and hostile comments that piled up on SXSW's "PanelPicker" website. "Level Up" panelist Caroline Sinders corroborated Chu's claims, noting that SXSW organizers refused to discuss security concerns of female panelists, The Washington Post reported. SXSW had reportedly been notified of security concerns as early as August, but did nothing, insisting that the conference was a "big tent."
SXSW characterized the decision to cancel the two panels as "strong community management." But the conference's guests are rightly asking where that kind of strong community management was when they were being harassed even before their panels were accepted. We are now asking the same question.