Two media organizations are threatening to withdraw from the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, next year after organizers canceled two controversial panels dealing with online harassment.
SXSW organizers this week said they would cancel the panels in response to threats of violence. In response, BuzzFeed and Vox Media said they would not participate in SXSW if the event does not find a way to address the online harassment issue.
One canceled panel centered on "Overcoming Harassment in Games" and the other was titled "SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community."
Organizers apparently feared the panels would become a flashpoint for the ongoing controversy in the video game community pitting those who say the games need to be more diverse and progressive against those who say games are being tainted by political correctness. This latter group has dubbed itself "gamergate."
In canceling the panels, SXSW reiterated its commitment to diverse ideas and opinions. But in the statement, SXSW interactive director Hugh Forrest did not give details of the threats. SXSW organizers did not respond to requests for comment.
"We were disturbed to learn yesterday that you canceled two panels, including one on harassment in gaming, in response to the sort of harassment the panel sought to highlight," BuzzFeed said in a statement Tuesday. It was signed by Ze Frank, the head of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures; Dao Nguyen, BuzzFeed's publisher; and Ben Smith, the site's editor in chief.
In past years, BuzzFeed staffers have regularly appeared as panelists at SXSW. This year, several are slated to moderate or speak on a half-dozen panels. BuzzFeed stated that it would "feel compelled to withdraw" its staff members from other panels if SXSW doesn't create a plan to "carry on important conversations in the face of harassment."
"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 said. "Those targets of harassment, who include our journalists, do important work in spite of these threats."
Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff said his organization -- which includes Vox.com, Polygon, The Verge, Re/code, Racked, Curbed, and SB Nation -- would not be participating in SXSW unless the organizers "take appropriate steps to correct" the problem.
"By approving the panels in question, SXSW assumed responsibility for related controversies and security threats," Bankoff said in a statement published on Re/code, a website owned by Vox Media. "By canceling the panels, they have cut off an opportunity to discuss a real and urgent problem in media and technology today."
Writer and activist Arthur Chu dissected how the panels came to be -- and came to be canceled -- in a long-form article published in the Daily Beast on Tuesday.
Much of it stemmed from issues with participants in gamergate, a group that's been criticized for online harassment. After learning about a panel called "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games," a subreddit dedicated to gamergate trashed the panelists online.
Soon after, a panel called "SavePoint: A Discussion in the Gaming Community" was submitted for approval. Like "Level Up," it did not explicitly reference gamergate. But as Vice explained, the moderator and the panelists were all public supporters of the movement.
Gamergate began last year, when a group of gaming enthusiasts rose up against those who were calling to make video games more diverse and less of a boys' club. The Gamergate camp became known for its frequent verbal attacks on women, and the men who supported those women.
Some of those associated with gamergate made threats of violence against their targets. Anita Sarkeesian, who runs the site Feminist Frequency and has created a series of YouTubes about troubling portrayals of women in video games, was forced to cancel an appearance at Utah State University after several threats of violence. She also had to go into hiding after receiving repeated death and rape threats. Video game developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu were also targeted.
Follow Jessica Roy on Twitter @jessica_roy.