SXSW cancellation of gamer panels draws condemnation

Thousands of people crammed into Sixth Street in Austin, Texas, during SXSW in 2014.
Thousands of people crammed into Sixth Street in Austin, Texas, during SXSW in 2014. Austin American-Statesman/Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — Two major online media companies and Representative Katherine Clark of Mass. are speaking out against the annual SXSW Interactive festival after organizers canceled two panels related to gaming and online harassment, citing threats of violence.

BuzzFeed said Tuesday it may pull out of the festival held in Austin, Texas, if the panels are not reinstated.

Later Tuesday, Vox Media said in a statement it would not participate “unless its organizers take this issue seriously.”

“We will work to find an alternative forum for this conversation and invite others who feel the same to join us,” the statement said.


Clark, a Medford Democrat, urged the festival to reconsider its decision in a letter posted to Twitter Tuesday afternoon.

“The brave women who were part of this panel are ready to speak out about the importance of combatting online threats despite being targets themselves. By cancelling the panel, SXSW has assisted those who wish to silence women by threatening violence,” Clark wrote.

In a blog posting Monday, SXSW Interactive Director Hugh Forrest said the festival was canceling two sessions for the 2016 event: ‘‘SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community’’ and ‘‘Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games’’ because the panels garnered threats of ‘‘on-site violence related to this programing.’’

‘‘Maintaining civil and respectful dialogue within the big tent is more important than any particular session,’’ Forrest wrote.

Both panels are related to the online campaign dubbed ‘‘GamerGate’’ that has led to the harassment of women in the video game industry for criticizing the lack of diversity and how women are portrayed in gaming. The ‘‘SavePoint’’ panel included several women who have been subjected to the harassment, and the ‘‘Level Up’’ panel’s specific topic was online harassment.

On Tuesday, three executives at BuzzFeed, which has had a major presence at the festival over the past several years, sent a letter to director Forrest saying they would ‘‘feel compelled’’ to withdraw BuzzFeed staffers from the panels they are on or moderating if the panels aren’t reinstated.


‘‘Digital harassment — of activists of all political stripes, journalists, and women in those fields or participating in virtually any other form of digital speech — has emerged as an urgent challenge for the tech companies for whom your conference is an important forum,’’ the letter states.

Brianna Wu, a video game developer who has frequently been the target of online harassment, including threats around Boston’s PAX East, also weighed in on Twitter.

“When I feel frustrated with things like SXSW, I take solace in the progress I see. All these conversations are adding up to something huge,” Wu wrote.

The tech festival, held annually in March, attracts 33,000-plus attendees from 82 countries and is part of the larger SXSW festival that also includes music, film and educational conferences. The gathering has a looser reputation than bigger tech conferences like the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, but it has become bigger and more corporate in recent years.

SXSW did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Christina Prignano of the Globe staff contributed to this report.