SXSW 2016
SXSW Under Fire

SXSW cuts controversial programming after online threats arise

SXSW cuts controversial programming after online threats arise

SXSW crowd shot convention center
SXSW Interactive has canceled two gaming-related panels for the 2016 festival. Photo by Jessica Pages

SXSW Interactive has canceled two sessions planned for the 2016 festival due to threats of violence. A statement from SXSW Interactive director Hugh Forrest announced the changes. 

"We had hoped that hosting these two discussions in March 2016 in Austin would lead to a valuable exchange of ideas on this very important topic. However, in the seven days since announcing these two sessions, SXSW has received numerous threats of on-site violence related to this programming," said Forrest.

The canceled sessions are "SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community" and "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games," meant to be open discussions about tensions within the video game community. Despite the timeliness of the two panels, Forrest maintains that SXSW cannot sacrifice the civility of the conference for any section of programming.

"SXSW prides itself on being a big tent and a marketplace of diverse people and diverse ideas. However, preserving the sanctity of the big tent at SXSW Interactive necessitates that we keep the dialogue civil and respectful. If people cannot agree, disagree, and embrace new ways of thinking in a safe and secure place that is free of online and offline harassment, then this marketplace of ideas is inevitably compromised," reads the statement. "Maintaining civil and respectful dialogue within the big tent is more important than any particular session."

The cancellations are seen as a result of the Gamergate controversy, an online movement that has created a polarized discourse on the male-centered culture of video games. While neither panel was explicitly Gamergate-related, both touched on controversy, such as online harassment and journalistic integrity.

According to Motherboard, the "SavePoint" panel would focus on journalistic integrity as well as the "social-political climate of the gaming community." The "Level Up" session was meant to discuss the very type of threats that led to the cancellations. The all-female panel would address "online harassment in gaming and geek culture: How to combat it, how to design against it, and how to create online communities that are moving away from harassment."

In response to the news, BuzzFeed announced that it plans to withdraw all employees from SXSW speaking engagements if the panels aren't reinstated. "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. We hope you can support the principle of free speech and engage a vital issue facing us and other constituents on the event," reads an open letter to Forrest from BuzzFeed officials.

BuzzFeed's statement echoes the sentiment of many online commentators who are calling for reinstatement of the sessions and increased security at the conference.