South by Southwest's organizers reversed course Friday and scheduled a summit about gaming-related Internet harassment. Organizers previously had called off two panels on the topic after receiving threats of violence if they were held.
"Earlier this week we made a mistake," Hugh Forrest, director of the SXSW Interactive Festival, said in a statement on its website. "By canceling 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 festival, held every March in Austin, Texas, unites technorati, filmmakers and musicians from around the world. Its decision to scrap the two sessions on harassment and objectification of women in video-game culture drew complaints from panelists, women's rights advocates and two media organizations. Vox Media and BuzzFeed both said they would boycott the festival unless the panels were restored.
SXSW's about-face comes four days after the festival canceled the panels in the wake of renewed Gamergate controversy, in which some gamers have been accused of misogyny, bullying and making death threats. Those most prominently affected included cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian and game developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu. A year ago, Sarkeesian was forced to cancel an appearance at Utah State University after the university received emails threatening "the deadliest school shooting in American history" if she spoke. That same month, Wu and her husband fled their home after someone posted her address and threatened to rape, kill and mutilate her.
The all-day online-harassment summit, slated for March 12, will feature Wu, Facebook product policy head Monica Bickert and Massachusetts Congresswoman Katherine Clark, who criticized SXSW's decision to cancel the panels.
"While we made the decision in the interest of safety for all of our attendees, canceling sessions was not an appropriate response," SXSW's Forrest said, adding the organizers had worked with authorities and security experts. "Online harassment is a serious matter and we stand firmly against hate speech and cyberbullying."
Whether the summit is a success or a "train wreck" will depend largely on SXSW organizers and their willingness to support women in the tech field, Aminatou Sow said in an email Friday. Sow is co-founder of the Tech LadyMafia listserve, an online forum for women in technology.
"It will be critical for them to take time to address the mistakes they made in the lead-up to the event," she said. "Too often, harassment is blamed solely on online trolls. But what also needs to be discussed is the entire tech industry's role in minimizing women's experiences both on and offline."