Last week, South by Southwest abruptly cancelled two panels planned for March: one discussing how to counter online harassment, and another about “ethics in journalism” stocked with Gamergate supporters. Today, one of the organizers of the online harassment panel says SXSW ignored her security suggestions, right up until the moment they cancelled both events.

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Caroline Sinders, writing today for Slate, says she, Randi Lee Harper, and Katherine Cross planned to use their panel at South by Southwest Interactive to discuss how design methodologies could help stem the ceaseless runny tide of harassment online. They didn’t want to fixate on Gamergate:

For our panel submission to SXSW, my co-organizers and I created an in-depth design discussion on how to stymie online harassment through design: new kinds of layout, buttons, privacy settings, different posting options. We wanted to cover a certain kind of “design thinking” methodology—design thinking is the specific rationale that goes into creating something such as, for example, a mobile application. We didn’t want to talk about Gamergate. We wanted to talk about design, and particularly design around solutions for harassment.

SXSW organizers had to turn off comments on the online poll where people could vote for her panel, Sinders writes, because of the volume of negative comments. She also shares clips of her emails with SXSW organizers, where she says there needs to be security personnel present during the panel. The organizers’ response, she says, was to tell her that would be contrary to the “big tent” and “exchange of dialogue” precepts the event is based on. From an email she says she received:

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We appreciate your thoughts and always welcome feedback from our community. That said, SXSW is a big tent and we strongly believe in showcasing a very diverse range of ideas and opinions, even if we as a staff don’t always agree with them. If everyone shared the same viewpoint, that would make for a pretty boring event.

Her followup email (“We want to keep this panel on topic, and we’d like the ability for security to intervene should it get hostile,” she wrote) went unanswered, she says, until she got an email learning the panel was being cancelled altogether.

Perhaps not anticipating the extent of the backlash, Re/Code reported earlier this week that SXSW is now considering the idea of an all-day forum about online harassment. Perry Jones, the organizer of the Gamergate panel, has written that the panelists there plan to hold their event at an alternate location around the same time as SXSW.

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Earlier this week, Hugh Forrest, direct of SXSW Interactive, declined to comment on the record to Jezebel.

Update, 12:30 p.m.: In a just-released statement, SXSW says they “made a mistake” cancelling both panels, and will hold an “online harassment summit” featuring most of the speakers from the canceled panels. The statement reads, in part:

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Earlier this week we made a mistake. 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 resulting feedback from the individuals involved and the community-at-large resonated loud and clear. While we made the decision in the interest of safety for all of our attendees, cancelling sessions was not an appropriate response. We have been working with the authorities and security experts to determine the best way to proceed.

It is clear that online harassment is a problem that requires more than two panel discussions to address.

Congresswoman Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, who’s spoken frequently about the social and economic damage online harassment does to women, is also confirmed as a speaker. Clark wrote an open letter to SXSW organizers earlier this week, expressing disappointment the harassment panel had been cancelled.

It’s unclear how the online harassment panelists and the Gamergate panelists will interact. The statement reads, “We are working with both groups to develop the most productive focus for their appearances.” And it ends with a condemnation of harassment that will surely irritate a few people who don’t believe it exists:

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Online harassment is a serious matter and we stand firmly against hate speech and cyber-bullying. It is a menace that has often resulted in real world violence; the spread of discrimination; increased mental health issues and self-inflicted physical harm.

Rep. Clark tells Jezebel in a statement that she’s pleased SXSW reconsidered, and glad to be part of the new event:

Online harassment isn’t just a virtual problem, and the decision earlier this week by SXSW to cancel a panel on the topic was a glaring example. I am grateful to the thousands of people who spoke out against this ill-advised decision. Their collective effort to stand up for those who are bullied, marginalized and threatened online has done more to raise awareness about this issue than one panel ever could. I’m also grateful that SXSW listened to our concerns and took immediate action to correct their course. I am encouraged by their decision to dedicate a full day to combat online harassment. I am proud to join such a distinguished list of speakers and thank SXSW for their willingness to listen and for taking a role in keeping the internet open to everyone.


Contact the author at anna.merlan@jezebel.com.
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