SXSW Interactive, the annual gathering of technology tastemakers and thought leaders in Austin, Tex., is facing a growing backlash over a decision to cancel two controversial panels on video game culture, with two digital media organizations threatening to pull out of the event.
BuzzFeed and Vox Media, the publisher of the Verge and other popular sites, both said on Tuesday that their employees would not participate in the March conference after the eventâs organizers announced that threats of violence were forcing them to cancel the panels.
In response, SXSW said on Tuesday that it was working with law enforcement officials to assess the threats it received regarding the panels and was evaluating âseveral programming solutions,â which it did not identify.
âWe want the SXSW community to know that we hear and understand your frustrations and concerns about the recent cancellation of two SXSW gaming panels,â Hugh Forrest, the director of SXSW Interactive, wrote in a blog post.
Both of the canceled panels were expected to touch on GamerGate, a loosely connected online movement that coalesced to counteract criticism of sexism in video games and game culture. One discussion was to be dedicated to the issue of harassment in game culture, while members of the other panel were GamerGate supporters.
âBy approving the panels in question, SXSW assumed responsibility for related controversies and security threats,â a statement by Vox Media said. âBy canceling the panels, they have cut off an opportunity to discuss a real and urgent problem in media and technology today.â
The moves by BuzzFeed and Vox echoed a growing outcry on social media over the conferenceâs decision.
The confab has long aspired to be a forum for buzz-worthy discussions about tech, rather than dry corporate speeches, and the two events that it canceled were sure to stir up passions. For the past two years, harassment in game and geek culture has become a high-profile topic, after several female game designers and critics were targeted for criticizing sexism in games.
People hostile to their views rallied around the Twitter hashtag #GamerGate, accusing them and journalists who wrote sympathetically about them of being politically correct âsocial justice warriors.â
Some of the people who have been targeted by GamerGate supporters in the past applauded the moves by BuzzFeed and Vox to boycott SXSW. But they said the conference should only reinstate the online-harassment panel, not the other, which they viewed as a forum for GamerGate supporters.
âIt’s great that media companies like Buzzfeed & Vox are taking a stand but SXSW should not give a platform to proponents of hate speech,â Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist game critic, wrote on Twitter.
Both panels ended up on the SXSW schedule through a crowdsourcing process that began with public submissions of panel themes and participants. Internet users could vote for and against those proposals. A conference committee and SXSW Interactive staff members screened all panels before they made it onto the final schedule.
Perry Jones, president of the Open Gaming Society, a group he founded to advocate the concerns of GamerGate supporters, submitted the idea for the panel that Ms. Sarkeesian and others criticized, and he disputed her characterization of it as âfear mongering.â
âSheâs dead wrong,â Mr. Jones said. âYou look at the topics — they werenât hateful.â
The topics of the panel included an assessment of the current social and political landscape of the gaming community and the importance of integrity in video game journalism.
An email from BuzzFeedâs senior leaders to Mr. Forrest of SXSW Interactive on Tuesday said the conference should reinstate both panels in the interest of open dialogue.
âWe will feel compelled to withdraw them if the conference canât find a way to do what those other targets of harassment do every day â to carry on important conversations in the face of harassment,â the Buzzfeed email said. âWe hope you can support the principle of free speech and engage a vital issue facing us and other constituents on the event.â