SXSW ’16 Melts Down Over #GamerGate

Ever since moving to Austin, I’ve scrupulously avoided SXSW. It was cool once but now it mostly seems kinda douche-y.

I read the news today, oh boy, and nothing in it has convinced me that I am wrong. Leigh Alexander at Wired.com (itself kind of a haven for insufferable digerati) puts it gently:

GamerGate is one of the more more visible harassment campaigns in recent memory, and its fallout has emphasized the need for dialogue about online abuse and ways to support women, people of color, and other marginalized populations in a historically male-dominated digital space. And while we’d all like to know what could possess someone to send death threats over video games, you’d have to be pretty out of touch to say hey, let’s hear what the harassers think about it; it’s only fair!

Except that’s essentially what SXSW did when it allowed a panel of GamerGaters onto its 2016 program lineup. It also cancelled a panel on overcoming harassment in games—in response to threats of harassment, which no doubt came from GamerGaters (the proposed anti-harassment panel included sociologist Katherine Cross and activist Randi Harper, two of their favorite targets). In the end SXSW canceled both panels, a widely criticized decision: Not only did it suggest a false equivalency between “both sides” of a non-debatable issue, but canceling an anti-harassment workgroup because of harassment demonstrates a profoundly shallow understanding of the topic.

A long account of the process—written by Arthur Chu, one of the panel’s participants—highlights how SXSW’s Reddit-style upvote/downvote “panel picker” system was perfectly suited to GamerGate’s preferred modes of attack: comment-thread spamming, slander, and threats. More problematically, even before the controversy erupted, conference organizers barely paid attention to the warning signs, and refused to intervene. With Reddit under prolonged fire for cultivating a toxic community, it’s hard to imagine anyone thought borrowing its toolset would go swimmingly.

Ostensibly, the cancellations were due to security fears; there have been threats made on both sides; and to be sure SXSW has caught flak from the City of Austin over security costs. But Brianna Wu and others have disputed that violent threats justified the response. Cancelling panels was not going to make anyone happy.

Arthur Chu’s conclusion pretty much sums this up:

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.

And now the backlash over the panel cancellations has begun:

South by Southwest Interactive is facing a growing media backlash over its decision to nix a pair of panels on gaming and online harassment.

A day after organizers for the Austin-based media festival announced that it had canceled the panels after receiving threats of violence, BuzzFeed and Vox Media both said that they plan to withdraw from the annual event.

It looks like the anti-harassment panel “Level Up” may still happen, as of now.

Maybe some day, when Ken Burns makes a documentary about the Great Internet Civil War that is #GamerGate, we’ll look back at this as a moment when corporate America decided it couldn’t abide cowering to trolls.

I wouldn’t bet on it, but it’s nice to dream.

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