UPDATE Oct. 30: SXSW Interactive has announced the re-instatement of the two canceled panels, along with the addition of a day-long, live-streamed summit addressing online harassment.
The online giant BuzzFeed is threatening to withdraw from the South By Southwest (SXSW) conference unless organizers reverse their decision to cancel two panels related to harassment of women in the video game world.
South By Southwest Interactive director Hugh Forrest announced Monday the cancellation of the panels due to "numerous threats of on-site violence related to this programming."
One of the panels, called "Level Up," was organized by IBM Watson interaction designer Caroline Sinders and was set to address the relationship between design and harassment in the gaming community.
Harassment of women in the gaming community has become more prominent since the advent of “Gamergate,” a controversy whose members described it as a debate over ethics in journalism and resulted in the targeting of women in technology. Some women have been threatened with violence, forcing them to seek legal protection and flee their homes.
BuzzFeed sent a letter saying it was "disturbed" by the cancellations, particularly "in response to the sort of harassment [Sinders’s] panel sought to highlight." The letter noted that some of BuzzFeed's own journalists have been targets of that same harassment, but do their work in spite of threats.
Brianna Wu, a video game developer scheduled to present another panel at SXSW Interactive and the target of previous Gamergate harassment, told KPCC that she was disturbed by SXSW’s decision to not bolster security instead.
“I've spoken at conventions all over the world this year, some of them much smaller than SXSW,” Wu told KPCC's the Frame. “There have been bomb threats or threats to me as a person at those panels. What they've ended up doing is just providing security and sweeping the venue for bombs before it's started. I've never had anyone just cancel a panel because of these threats.”
South By Southwest's statement said the threats would keep the conference from being a "safe and secure place that is free of online and offline harassment," and that ultimately "maintaining civil and respectful dialogue within the big tent [of South By Southwest] is more important than any particular session."
(South by Southwest organizers did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.)
The other canceled panel, called “Save Point,” was proposed by “The Open Gaming Society” — an organization with ties to Gamergate supporters and to a group who had harassed Sinders’s panel when it was up for public voting.
Wu contends that SXSW is trying to sidestep the controversy entirely, but in so doing they’re “choosing not to give women a voice,” which tacitly supports Gamergate’s exclusionary goals.
“What is really troubling to me is the larger message that SXSW is sending,” Wu said. “So from now on, Gamergate has a message: if they threaten enough violence against a venue where a woman is speaking, now they have a precedent for nobody getting to speak whatsoever.”
BuzzFeed’s letter said the company "has participated deeply in SXSW for years, and our staffers are scheduled to speak on or moderate a half-dozen panels at SXSW 2016. We will feel compelled to withdraw them if the conference can’t find a way to do what those other targets of harassment do every day — to carry on important conversations in the face of harassment.”
BuzzFeed’s letter added that, with the conference still being five months away, they were confident the conference could "put in place appropriate security precautions" in time and that their own security staff would be happy to offer their advice.
This story has been updated.