Media Companies, BuzzFeed, Vox, Threaten to Withdraw From SXSW Over Cancelled Panels

by Cassandra Vinograd and Phil Helsel /  / Updated 
Image: Buzzfeed
The BuzzFeed website is displayed on an iPad on Sept. 1, 2015. Richard Vogel / AP

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Popular digital media companies BuzzFeed and Vox Media have threatened to withdraw from the South by Southwest festival after two panel discussions about harassment and the online gaming community were cancelled due to threats of violence.

The festival — known as SXSW — said it had hoped that hosting the two panels "SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community" and "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games" would lead to a "valuable exchange of ideas."

But the popular festival, to be held in Austin, Texas in March, said in a blog post Monday it had received "numerous threats of on-site violence" related to the programs in the week since the March 2016 SXSW Interactive event panels were announced. The festival did not detail the nature of the threats.

Related: SXSW Cancels Panel on Harassment Citing Threats of Violence

BuzzFeed staffers had planned to speak at or moderate six panels at SXSW.

"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 said in an online post and in a letter to SXSW Interactive Festival Director Hugh Forrest.

U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts said in a letter to Forrest Tuesday that “by cancelling the panel, SXSW has assisted those who wish to silence women by threatening violence."

Amid the controversy, SXSW said in a statement Tuesday that "we hear and understand your frustrations and concerns about the recent cancellation of two SXSW Gaming panels."

It said it was working with local law enforcement over the threats, and "we are also evaluating several programming solutions as we continue to plan for an event that will be safe, meaningful and enjoyable for all involved."

The "Level Up" panel was due to feature experts on online harassment discussing how to combat and discourage Internet bullying.

The Online Abuse Prevention Initiative's Randi Harper was one of the panelists, and she suggested that the festival had cancelled sessions that "focused on the GamerGate controversy." Harper said her panel was "in no way related" to the the SavePoint discussion or about GamerGate.

GamerGate is a movement led by mostly male gamers who say they are fighting for more ethical gaming journalism — but the group has become better known for its cyberattacks on female gamers.

Related: For Some Tech Feminists, Online Harassment is the Norm

The SavePoint panel also was not explicitly about GamerGate — but featured panelists such as Nick Robalik and porn actress Mercedes Carrera, who've expressed support for the movement. NBC San Diego's Lynn Walsh was also on the panel.

Organized by the Open Gaming Society, the "SavePoint" panel was billed as a forum to discuss issues including "the importance of journalistic integrity in video game's media" — which appeared to put it squarely in the pro-GamerGate camp.

Vox Media was also reconsidering its relationship with SXSW after the panels were cancelled, the company said in a statement published by The Verge, which is owned by Vox.

"By approving the panels in question, SXSW assumed responsibility for related controversies and security threats. By canceling the panels, they have cut off an opportunity to discuss a real and urgent problem in media and technology today," Vox said.

The Open Gaming Society said the "intense" situation "grew out of control" quickly and that it was determined to fund and host the panel itself.

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