SXSW’s Video Game Fiasco Proves the Tech World Can’t Be “Neutral” on Harassment

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After approving several panels dealing with online gaming and harassment, including one featuring several known supporters of the movement for “ethics in video-game journalism” that shall not be named, the South by Southwest festival in Austin realized it had a problem on its hands.

You see, when you tacitly encourage harassers, they tend to harass.

So, faced with mounting threats, SXSW canceled several panels at once — including one that involved figures targeted by harassment and another that featured proponents of that would-be “movement.” The organizers then released the following, rather milquetoast statement: “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.”

Panelists who were the actual targets of the harassment the festival was receiving were not impressed:

Neither were big media firms like BuzzFeed and Vox, which both threatened to withdraw from the major tech and culture conference entirely unless the panels were reinstated or alternate programming addressing online harassment was provided.

The blunders the conference committed were manifold: the suppression of speech, the blithe naïveté regarding what has become an increasingly catastrophic problem in the tech field, the seeming victim-blaming that implicated those voices who spoke out against harassment in their own harassment, and the false equivalence SXSW’s statement made between both sides of an issue where only one side has been getting death threats and hounded into hiding.

Online advocate Briana Wu, no stranger to serious death threats, told CNNMoney that she and others had contacted organizers to talk about security before the event cancellation, but the organizers gave them the brush-off, responding to their offers to help brainstorm solutions in a “very patronizing manner.” “I’ve had death threats at events a fraction of the size, with a fraction of the budget. [They’ve] been able to handle it,” said Wu, who reportedly attended the BlogHer conference with a bodyguard.

As part of the backlash, a barnstorming letter to the SXSW brass from The Cauldron’s Chris Kluwe began circulating on social media. “First off, the panel was not on Gamergate, did not mention Gamergate, and the only tangential relation it had with Gamergate was that the odorous denizens of that particular hashtag have made it their mission to try and ruin the lives of the women involved in the panel (among others),” wrote Kluwe, adding: ” You run a festival that features A-list celebrities and tech magnates worth collective billions, superstar athletes, and some of the biggest music acts in the world, and you’re telling me you can’t provide security for a panel of three women? ”

SXSW’s organizers have come across as incredibly timid, allowing the buck to stop with the violent horde rather than taking charge themselves. It’s clear to any onlooker that those who threaten violence should not be the arbiters of who deserves a platform. And Kluwe’s pieces further underscores why SXSW’s decision was so embarrassing for the festival: the apolitical positioning and mainstream appeal that have likely made the event hesitant to attract controversy have also given it the resources, wherewithal, and power to provide adequate security for its participants. If SXSW can create an atmosphere where Kanye West can perform secret shows and Bruce Springsteen and Snoop Dogg can give keynotes, where movie stars and tech gurus can rub elbows at secret afterparties, then there’s no reason it can’t also do what it takes to ensure panelists’ safety.

Knowing how bad they look has probably influenced SXSW to backtrack, to an extent. The festival is now “considering an all-day event that focuses primarily on combatting online harassment” and has reinstated one panel, “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games,” although the participants have not yet been reconfirmed.

The situation remains something of a mess. But, going forward, the question isn’t just: “Were SXSW wrong in how they handled this entire ordeal?” (yes, they were). It is: “How do you fight harassment without making participants in that fight even more vulnerable?” On the one hand, we’ve seen that if you merely give people a platform without protecting them in any way, you’re not facilitating speech but opening a conduit for harassment. On the other, if you give up and shut down discussion, the would-be silencers will have achieved their goals.

This isn’t that different from the problem faced by online platforms like Twitter, which want to be conduits for free and unfettered speech but also accidentally provided the mechanism for much of the initial Gamergate harassment. The problem is this: A forum isn’t open, a platform isn’t free, if some people are so scared they can’t participate, or if threats of violence shut down the conversation.

The critique SXSW has faced this week forces the realization that if the targets of well-publicized harassment campaigns were powerful and famous, they wouldn’t be blamed or punished for their own predicament, and everyone involved would find a way to make the show go on. Because they are simply women who have spoken out, they’re not taken as seriously. But the reality we’ve witnessed over the past several years is that any woman who speaks up about sexism in tech or gaming is vulnerable to threats. If they want to be seen as the vanguard and the future, it’s time for the titans of the tech world to accept this as the status quo and start doing something about it.