SXSW will hold all-day summit about online harassment in partnership with …

30 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Gamergate: Video game war over women spills into real life.

A week after canceling two panels because of violent threats, SXSW has re-invited the panels’ guests — along with many other big names — to speak at a day-long anti-harassment summit. “Earlier this week we made a mistake,” SXSW Interactive organizer Hugh Forrest wrote in a blog post. “By canceling two sessions, we sent an unintended message that SXSW not only tolerates online harassment but condones it, and for that we are truly sorry.” Now, he says, “it is clear that online harassment is a problem that requires more than two panel discussions to address.” Instead of reinstating the panels as they were, SXSW is “working with both groups to develop the most productive focus for their appearances.” The summit, held on Saturday, March 12th, has nearly 20 other confirmed speakers. BuzzFeed and Vox Media threatened to withdraw from the annual technology confab after organizers canceled two panels about harassment in the gaming community.In the wake of a week-long controversy over its cancellation of an anti-harassment panel, the SXSW Interactive Festival has announced that it will not only reinstate the panel but also hold a day-long summit on the topic of online harassment.The fallout from SXSW’s decision to cancel a pair of Gamergate-related panels after “threats of on-site violence” continues, with those involved now explaining how the festival itself failed to take the harassment seriously.

I think at this point it’s safe to say, even though SXSW 2016 is still several months in the future, that SXSW’s leadership has made some considerable errors. US Representative Katherine Clark (D-MA) and former Texas state senator Wendy Davis, both of whom expressed disappointment with SXSW online, are on the list, along with Facebook’s head of product policy Monika Bickert, Anti-Defamation League director CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, ACLU senior staff member Lee Rowland, and game developer Brianna Wu, who has advocated against harassment during the past year’s Gamergate controversy.

Writing for Slate, designer Caroline Sinders — an organizer for one of the canceled panels, “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games” — says representatives for SXSW ignored issues of security and instead stressed the festival’s desire to showcase “a very diverse range of ideas and opinions.” Sinders reports an email exchange with two representatives from the festival, asking them if security will be present at the panel to “to make sure that our talk does not get derailed, which has happened in the past, particularly around the topics of harassment and gaming.” She adds: “We want to keep this panel on topic, and we’d like the ability for security to intervene should it get hostile.” The representatives did not respond, and Sinders says she heard nothing from the festival until receiving the news that her panel was canceled. Though South by Southwest, often called SXSW, did not release details of the threats it received, the festival is the latest host of discussions on the harassment of women in gaming that has been silenced by intimidation. None of this solves the violent threats that SXSW described, but Forrest says the conference is trying to fix that, too. “Given the nature of online harassment, we will continue to work closely with the authorities and safety experts while planning for SXSW 2016.” More details are supposed to be forthcoming.

Last year, Utah State University’s Center for Women and Gender received an email threatening a mass shooting if Anita Sarkeesian — a feminist media critic and creator of a series called “Tropes vs. You could blame the charming folks at the r/KotakuInAction and their less-presentable brethren at /baph/ on 8chan, who have a distressing tendency to try to cause as much trouble as possible “for the lulz” whether or not it hurts their ostensible cause. The particulars are specific to the video game industry – a backlash to female game designers and players critiquing what they consider negative depictions of women and minorities in games. The other, developed with input from supporters of the Gamergate movement, was meant to be a larger discussion of the gaming community, including ethics in games journalism. She describes the festival’s “cluelessness” as “so severe as to seem willful,” and adds that the problem of failing to take these sorts of campaigns of harassment seriously is not limited to SXSW. “Technology events continue to invite us to appear on panels and roundtables — to donate our time, effort and expertise, and sometimes even risk our own safety — but they have not listened to us on a basic level,” writes Alexander. “Our experience doesn’t matter to them; what does is our presence.” Since canceling the panels, SXSW has been criticized by media organizations including BuzzFeed and The Verge’s parent company Vox Media.

Sinders provided e-mails to The Washington Post that suggest not only had SXSW failed to adequately warn and protect panelists against threats, but that it had repeatedly ignored panelists’ safety concerns before the threats happened. When Sinders wrote to SXSW and asked that there be security at her panel, she never heard back from the representative—that is, not until SXSW opted to cancel the panel. In a statement from Vox Media, the company outlined its objection to SXSW’s behavior: “By approving the panels in question, SXSW assumed responsibility for related controversies and security threats.

And game developers Brianna Wu and Zoe Quinn, vocal about sexism in gaming, both left their homes after receiving death threats, U.K. newspaper The Guardian reported. I didn’t expect them to be at the summit,” she wrote. “Gamergate has nothing to do with online harassment other than being the ones that perpetrate it.” The Open Gaming Society, which organized the second panel, has not yet made a public statement. The root problem is a rigid, simplistic response to difference that too easily resorts to violent conflict as a means of expressing frustration,” says Rachel Wagner, a researcher at Ithaca College and author of the upcoming book, “God, Games, Guns.” As in the case of SXSW, she says, one person can shut down important dialogue about very real misogynistic aspects of gaming simply by threatening violence, “using the same symbolic language that so often populates the games they play.” The relationship between video game violence and real-life shootings is too complex to be simply causative, Professor Wagner says in an e-mail. And Clark, the congresswoman,sent a letter to conference director Hugh Forrest, encouraging him to “stand behind” victims of online violence by reinstating the anti-harassment session. “I urge you to consider the impact of this decision, how it relates to the future of digital media, its economic promise, and our collective obligation to ensure equal participation in it,” Clark wrote. “Our message to targets of online threats and harassment should not be that the Internet is closed to their voices.” I understand security can be hard; I understand wanting to show all sides of an issue and creating a panel that is “of the moment.” But SXSW created a disingenuous and potentially dangerous situation.

After biting my tongue since August I finally decided to write a long tell-all article my and others’ treatment during SXSW’s “PanelPicker” process, in hopes that it would cause some trouble for SXSW. The Hugo Awards refused to issue awards in several categories this year after a campaign by a group calling itself Sad Puppies used the nominating ballots to push white male candidates. Harper said she was laid off from her gaming industry job at KIXEYE Inc. due to an email smear campaign that claimed she was creating an industry blacklist (she noted, however, that KIXEYE told her she was laid off because of reorganization). And the new “Star Wars” and “Mad Max” movies both saw a backlash from groups of online male critics for what they saw as an emphasis on female and minority characters over a white male hero. But while it’s tempting to cast blame on the outraged for giving you a hard time, it bears asking what, exactly, led to all these people having something to be outraged about.

This level of pushback is predictable, says Stetson University’s Chris Ferguson, co-chair of the psychology department, who has studied video game culture. In April, Harper said that she was “swatted.” Someone called in a threat to the police, and then gave her address, after which a SWAT team descended on her house.

Women now make up nearly half the game-playing population, expanding their interests into the realms traditionally inhabited by men, such as first-person shooter and war games. As this has happened, women have found that their criticisms – that there are few female protagonists and highly sexualized female characters are often victims – have met with resistance. Many men are accustomed to playing with other men, points out Professor Ferguson. “This is where hostility and sexism are rearing their heads,” he says, adding that some people don’t want to hear that they can’t have their girls in chain-mail bikinis any more. This week’s revelations of threats against the popular festival are only the latest in what some have dubbed Gamergate – a loosely formed affiliation of online voices, many anonymous, who call the women’s critiques political correctness run amok. Like so many big, clueless organizations before them, SXSW screwed itself over by thinking it could always take the safest, easiest path of least resistance, the (non-)choice that pleased everyone.

I get that SXSW wants to keep things “positive,” in the shallow sense of “positive,” by which I mean generally avoiding upsetting, unpleasant conflicts and pretending things are already basically okay. Others have had their personal information exposed online and been subjected to ongoing digital abuse. “Gaming is a microcosm of the larger culture,” says social anthropologist Joseph Anthony, who heads HERO Group, a marketing agency targeting Millennials. “Race and gender issues are very relevant topics right now.” Those pushing for social progress have always faced threats of violence, says psychologist Bernard Luskin, past president of the media division of the American Psychological Association. “The brave women who were part of this panel are ready to speak out about the importance of combating online threats despite being targets themselves,” she wrote. Concern trolls defending SXSW’s actions keep coming up to me and my friends saying “SXSW has no obligation to host a ‘fight’ if they don’t want to.” Of course they don’t. I can’t count how many times I’ve experienced or observed people trying to “start a dialogue” or “draw attention” to online harassment doing it in exactly the wrong way such that all they do is increase harassment. The relative anonymity of the Internet allows some unfortunate few to respond with the kind of posturing and revenge they are used to adopting in their game worlds, he adds. “Some are just trolls who want to make trouble,” he says, but the process can still be constructive. “You may not change minds, but you can begin to develop civilized discourse instead of violence.”

These are only professional standards, not laws–some outlets violate them regularly and gleefully–but they provide a basic foundation for not putting yourself in the hypocritical position of “fighting” school shootings by creating an environment that encourages the next shooter. It takes a special degree of cluelessness to invite people from those organizations to speak about their field of expertise and ignore everything they have to say in the process of doing so. It was the far worse crime of being mostly rigid but bending only when pushed too hard and only in the direction of appeasing whoever’s pushing on you hardest at that moment.

Moderating comments–going through them one by one to see what should and shouldn’t be hosted on your site–is the best strategy, but it’s the most time-consuming one. Closing comments–so that no comments get posted at all and the content has to stand on its own merits–is another option, but one that flies in the face of SXSW’s ethos of totally “open” debate. Anyone who was quick on their trigger finger enough to get their comments in within that first weekend got to see their graffiti emblazoned on the PanelPicker site for the duration of the voting process.

This didn’t reverse any of the damage done, including the link, as I mentioned in my earlier piece, maliciously revealing the birth name of a trans person who wasn’t even on any of the panels. But it did keep things from “getting worse” to a degree that might have made SXSW uncomfortable–it stopped the possibility of SXSW getting in the news for a full doxing of someone’s address, for instance, once one of my fellow panelists brought that up as a possibility. One that does just enough to say you “did something” while still changing the underlying situation as little as possible, kicking the can a few feet down the road. Then, once the bombardment of verbal attacks from r/KotakuInAction was forcibly stopped by the comment threads being locked, r/KotakuInAction immediately organized to put together their own panel for SXSW. They’d had the luxury of not being hit by it personally by presenting themselves as a mere “neutral facilitator” of conversations rather than “taking sides”–an impression the whole idea of a public-vote “PanelPicker” is meant to reinforce–but now they were the ones being put in the hot seat.

Then they would’ve made themselves the next target of r/KiA’s brigades of flooding comments sections, emailing advertisers and making life hell for their “bias.” (Refusing to approve a new panel because the deadline has passed isn’t actually a “bias” but that’s never stopped GamerGaters before.) Or they could have taken the late panel submission and put it up on PanelPicker and publicly committed themselves to the idea that both the harassed and harassers deserve a voice. The obvious response to GamerGate lighting up our panels through their channels and then having a panel of their own would be us lighting them up in return. Telling other panelists who’ve been harassed by those applicants that their panel will be rejected before it actually is rejected is arguably unprofessional. But it got, for the moment, exactly what SXSW had repeatedly told us they wanted–it got the controversy to “die down,” as GamerGaters settled down to wait for their panel to be approved and we waited for it to be rejected.

I would guess they had the same vain hope common to big organizations committed to doing everything necessary e to avoid bad PR in the very near term–that in the long term, the controversy will “blow over.” It didn’t. Remaining “neutral” by deciding to throw both panels under the bus didn’t make the problem go away, it intensified it to headline-level national news.

The cliché “If you stand for nothing you’ll fall for anything” is overworn (especially after being in a Katy Perry song) so I’ll be more specific: If you don’t set an “agenda,” if you don’t have a “mission,” if you don’t take a “side,” one will be chosen for you, and it will be done by the most aggressive, least scrupulous actors. Then SXSW took an application for a GamerGate panel created in response to our panels and, in secret, approved it, encouraging GamerGaters to come to Austin in person to confront people they’d attacked online. That’s what happens when you negotiate with terrorists–or, if you consider that too melodramatic, that’s what happens when you consistently grease the squeakiest, loudest, most harassing and intimidating wheel.

When you “don’t take sides” you end up for all practical purposes siding with the bad guys, and the more you try to dig yourself out of your hole the deeper it gets, until you find yourself where SXSW is today.

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