(Re)call of Duty: Did SXSW Give In to Online Harassment?

A woman shown from overhead with pink hair working at a laptop

South by Southwest (SXSW) brings together technology and art enthusiasts from across the country every year. Image by kris krüg, Flickr Creative Commons

November 02, 2015

The month of October marks two significant awareness campaigns in the United States: domestic violence and bullying prevention. How ironic is it that as the month waned, South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW) publicly decided to concede to threats of violence by allowing anonymous bullies to stake their claim in what has become the largest convergence of technology and art in the country? SXSW’s apathetic response not only condoned harassment but told the public that tech companies do not need to take addressing online harassment seriously and that avoidance is an acceptable solution.

In case you missed the story, SXSW decided recently to cancel two panels, including one on online bullying and sexism in game culture, due to reported threats of violence. Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive, wrote, “We want the SXSW community to know that we hear and understand your frustrations and concerns about the recent cancellation of two SXSW Gaming panels.” A week later, Forrest apologized for cancelling the panels, calling the decision a “mistake.”

While some might appreciate the attempt to correct the error, I do not believe his apology is sincere.  And that makes me question how they’ll handle the newly proposed panel moving forward. My disbelief is likely rooted in SXSW’s cursory response to the awesome letter from BuzzFeed staff withdrawing from the festival, the viral online reaction, as well as some of the speakers from the canceled harassment panel’s concerns about the second panel — which would have been run by supporters of GamerGate, named for the online group that has cropped up in reaction to critics of the sexism and bullying in gaming culture.

SXSW’s Hugh Forrest announced plans for a new panel featuring some speakers from the formerly rejected panels. But why did Buzzfeed and countless online critics have to call out SXSW before they agreed to do the right thing? The entire purpose of a tech forum is to provide support and develop solutions to shared problems. Avoiding the problem, which is exactly what SXSW attempted to do originally, has no place in any tech company’s mission. This new attempt is better, but is it really enough?

Hugh Forrest, South by Southwest (SXSW) director, speaks at a podium onstage.

Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive. Image by arlanne, Flickr Creative Commons

AAUW Vice President of Government Relations Lisa Maatz noted how important it is for companies like SXSW Inc., Vox, and BuzzFeed to take a principled stand on bullying. “Tech companies are starting to see the error of their ways. Getting more women into STEM has been hard because of the brogrammer culture.” That “brogrammer” culture has long barred women from fully contributing to the growing, multi-billion dollar gaming industry.

Getting girls interested in STEM early is important. But AAUW’s Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing research has highlighted the fact that simply trying to recruit girls and get women into STEM fields, such as gaming, is not enough. Successfully integrating women into the field requires a shift in the overall environment. Wouldn’t the SXSW conference serve as a great platform to discuss this shift amongst a diverse group of contributors?

Giving online harassment and bullying issues the attention they deserve at the conference would not only speak to SXSW’s commitment to facilitating opportunities for engaging in socially relevant issues, but also foster a sense of belonging for the ever-growing pool (currently 22 percent) of women gamers who wish to contribute to the industry.

Shireen Mitchell, founder of Digital Sistas and chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO), works on preventing violence against women online. She also submitted a SXSW panel proposal on the issue of online harassment for women, especially women of color, and was rejected. She commented on the controversy:

When people think this debate is just about difference of opinions and balance they are completely missing what’s really going on. This isn’t about name calling, disagreements, nor about being ‘too P.C.’ This isn’t about free speech; this is about threats of violence. Death threats are not protected speech whether you do it in person and neither should it be if it’s online. Threats of rape, lynching, and violence is NOT debatable.

Of SXSW’s decision, Mitchell said that they wanted media attention, and now they have it. The good news is, they’ve started to feel the pressure of that attention.

This post was written by AAUW Senior STEM Program Associate Kentra Reyes-Tillman.

AAUWguest By:   |   November 02, 2015

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