Features » November 9, 2015
Why SXSW’s ‘Harassment Summit’ Is a Terrible Solution to Harassment
Here’s what we learned from the women targeted.
The defining irony of the controversy around SXSW's planned “harassment summit” — a.k.a. the SXSW “GamerGate controversy” — is that the women at the center of it never intended to talk about GamerGate, the “ethics in gaming journalism” movement that first reared its death-threat-uttering head last summer. The fact that they’ve been forced to do so is the result of what appears to be institutional cluelessness and spectacularly bad communication—and, perhaps most significantly, the fact that the line between “harassment” and “conversation” is something many people still seem unwilling to comprehend.
The GamerGate movement began as one man's attempt to punish his ex-girlfriend. Eron Gjoni, who dated feminist game developer Zoe Quinn, posted a 9,000-word jeremiad about their relationship problems to the Internet. It took off, and hashtags and Sub-Reddits congealed around it, largely because of the conspiracy theory that Quinn secured a good review for her video game by sleeping with a different man, video game writer Nathan Grayson of Kotaku. (If so, it worked out poorly – he never reviewed the game at all.) This is where the “ethics in video game journalism” rallying cry comes from, but in actuality, the movement is based around pushing feminist voices and “SJWs” (“social justice warriors,” meant as an insult) out of the video game community. Sometimes this doesn't go any farther than inundating someone with verbal abuse on social media, but death threats and even real-world violence have been used as silencing mechanisms in the past.
Hence, where GamerGate goes, Internet shouting—to put it mildly—follows. The controversial “harassment summit” was itself convened to quell controversy over a decision SXSW announced on October 26: to cancel two panels booked for its March 2016 SXSW Interactive conference – one pro-GG, the other happening to feature some of GamerGate's many targets for harassment. SXSW Interactive Director Hugh Forrest's official announcement of the cancellation called it “strong community management,” stating that “SXSW has received numerous threats of on-site violence related to this programming,” and that with all this fighting going on, there was no way to keep “preserving the sanctity of the big tent.” Basically, all opinions were welcome at SXSW, unless they were opinions people objected to violently. Which arguably meant violence or threats of violence could be used to determine the agenda for SXSW for the foreseeable future. The backlash was immediate and noisy – Vox Media, Buzzfeed and The Verge all threatened to drop out of the conference – and SXSW labeled the cancellation “a mistake” just days later, booking a day-long harassment summit instead.
It was supposed to fix the problem and end the fighting. It's made it worse. In These Times interviewed two of the panelists and found that, in its efforts to take harassment seriously, SXSW is failing to meet or understand their needs.
First, let’s review the many bad decisions that got SXSW to this place. “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games” was a SXSW panel proposed this summer by game developer Caroline Sinders, featuring Randi Harper (founder of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative) and Katherine Cross (who writes for Gamasutra). It was the sort of tech-centric, deep-nerding panel that South by Southwest Interactive—best-known as a massive five-day party but still nominally a technology convention—ought to specialize in: about “UI decisions and how they can influence accuracy and usage of reporting abuse.” In tech-illiterate troglodyte terms (which are the only terms I understand) it was about building a better block button. That’s the sort of thing anyone who’s had a slur thrown at them by an angry teenage World of Warcraft player ought to appreciate. One thing it was not about was GamerGate. The two topics were not intended to overlap.
And yet. Things went off the rails the moment the panel was proposed, for the very simple reason that all three women belonged to GamerGate's ever-growing list of Evil SJWs in Video Games, and had therefore been harassed (and one of them violently terrorized) by GamerGaters in the past.
“The only connection [was] that all three of us had been targeted by the movement (Randi was SWATed, and so was Caroline's mother),” says Cross. “We're all determined to move beyond GamerGate … and all three of us have carried on our work in different ways. But GamerGate thrives on having an enemy, and so they made a target out of us once again.”
SWATing, for those unfamiliar, is the process of calling 911 and reporting a false emergency so that an armed SWAT team will invade the target’s place of residence. It has the potential to kill, and it has already caused serious physical injury. This July, a SWATing victim was shot in the face with a rubber bullet and required extensive surgery. It is a well-known tactic of GamerGate, and a federal crime.
And, though it's one of the more extreme acts of violence aimed at women by GamerGaters, the “mild” options aren't much less violent. Consider the “better” treatment received by GamerGate targets like Anita Sarkeesian (she had to pull out of a planned talk at Utah State because the school was receiving letters promising “the deadliest school shooting in American history”), Brianna Wu (who received multiple phone calls at her home from a man whose idea of pleasant conversation included “I’m coming to your fucking house right now; I will slit your throat, you stupid little fucking whore”) or Zoe Quinn, GamerGate's first target (who received messages such as “Im not only a pedophile, ive raped countless teens, this zoe bitch is my next victim, im coming slut”). No weapons were involved. But the end results were the same: The victims lived in fear of imminent rape and/or violent death because GamerGaters didn't agree with them. It’s what has led some people to label GamerGate itself a terrorist movement.
In the early stages of the controversy, however, the attempt to deprive these women of a platform stayed relatively peaceful. Since proposed panels at SXSW are placed up for popular vote, GamerGate members gathered on Reddit to organize downvoting campaigns for “Level Up,” intending to prevent the panelists from being booked. It was also at around this time that a pro-GamerGate panel was proposed. None of the Level Up panelists viewed these as threats or even objected to them; Cross says, “I’ve nothing to fear from GGers adhering to the rules of a conference.”
But the downvoting campaign didn't work; Sinders' panel was booked. So was the pro-GamerGate panel, “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community.” Which caused the LevelUp folks to worry about what might happen if and when GamerGate stopped adhering to the rules. The harassment aimed at Sinders, Harper and Cross had been violent in the past – again, SWATing is arguably a form of attempted murder; Harper and Sinders' mother had already survived it once – and might become violent again. Sinders says she repeatedly tried to get in touch with SXSW, keeping them advised of the existence of a campaign against her panel, its context, and the potential for threats. She characterizes their response as remarkably indifferent — that is, when she received a response at all.
“They told me, ’SXSW is really into diversity of voices and opinions, you may not agree with all of them,’” Sinders says. “I was like, ‘Great, we’re really into diversity of voices. That being said, security is a concern for us.’ I didn’t hear back.”
The next thing she knew, her panel (along with the GamerGate panel) had been cancelled due to threats. SXSW's language is vague here, but there's at least an implication that the “Save Point” received the threats as well as “Level Up.” The problem, according to Sinders, was that she'd been trying to plan for exactly this eventuality.
“I was never notified that there had been threats of any nature,” she says. “And I was never notified of any violent threats.” (SXSW did not respond by deadline to a request for comment.)
So, while she was unsuccessfully trying to discuss threats or violence with SXSW's staff, SXSW had apparently been receiving threats and not discussing them with her. And, rather than working with security staff to make the panel safer, she was dropped. Which, conveniently enough, is exactly what the GamerGaters wanted when they campaigned against the panel. In his blog post about the cancellation, SavePoint panelist Perry Jones sounded remarkably Zen. “Don’t attack SXSW for this. They did what they felt was best for their team(s),” he wrote. Somehow, the news that GamerGate's targets were being silenced didn't seem to appall the GamerGaters very much at all.
And thus, controversy erupted into the mainstream and the harassment summit was announced, with the “Level Up” and pro-GamerGate panel participating in lieu of their scheduled talks. In one last spectacular failure to communicate, the “Level Up” panelists say the plan wasn't passed by them for approval, resulting in the women being surprised to see their names on SXSW’s announcement.
“We knew the harassment summit was going to happen but we hadn't heard that it had been completely 100 percent confirmed with all of the speakers, and we were not aware our panel was being included,” Sinders says. “There had been talks of including ours, but nothing was 100 percent confirmed to us until SXSW released their press release. We had no idea that the other panel, the ethics in journalism panel, was going to be at the anti-harassment summit as well.”
Sinders and Cross were measured in their assessment of the situation when they spoke with In These Times. Both expressed some hope that they might be able to attend the summit, if changes were made to SXSW's initial plan. For one thing, if violent threats are on the table, their safety needs to be taken into consideration.
“While I think a summit focused on harassment is a step in the right direction, I remain concerned about security at the conference,” Cross says. “I've not heard much about that since the initial threats were made. I would also like the summit to be administered by a consortium of experts, rather than just SXSW, so that it can be a true collaboration rather than simply something that can be dismissed as good PR for SXSW.”
This worry has been raised elsewhere, and in stronger terms, by Arthur Chu and others online. This comes from neither woman I interviewed – I'm spitballing here – but pretty much no one who has followed GamerGate's evolution thinks that putting victims of violent harassment into direct physical proximity with GamerGaters is remotely a good idea.
And the reason I must speculate is that, for GamerGate's targets particularly the women of the “Level Up” panel, who’ve been shoved into the middle of a raging controversy, and who face an even higher likelihood of threats or violence as the result of all the exposure, a cautious assessment is understandable. This piece was hard to interview for; I got the sense (which is relatively rare, when you're interviewing folks who work in media) that people were uncomfortable talking about the situation. I got the sense, more than anything, that my coverage here could harm the people I spoke to, if I got it wrong. When I brought this up with Cross, she was clear that speaking about GamerGate poses a very real risk.
“If you discuss GamerGate in any way that is remotely critical of them, you become a target,” Cross says, “and it has stopped people from speaking up out of pure fear. All mob harassment, regardless of its source, has this impact; your silence is a prayer for safety. Now more than ever, though, we need to speak up and out.”
That said, I believe Sinders when she tells me that she’s interested in talking to GamerGaters for her research, and even when she says that there are GamerGaters who only participate in the movement’s message boards for harmless fun. The question is whether that harmless fun can be separated from the movement's legacy of terror.
“The metaphor I use is like, what if the entire Democratic Party organized under one hashtag?” Sinders says. “And what if, within that, extremists were targeting politicians or ordinary people? Could the rest of the group be like, ‘That’s not us’? Well, actually, if your group is doing that, and you don’t agree with that, the answer is to splinter and form a new one.”
Cross also stressed that the threats were not coming solely from GamerGate, and GamerGate couldn’t take the blame for the problem of harassment itself, which is wider than any one group.
“We don't know the source of the threats made to SXSW,” she says. “Such ugliness tends to follow GamerGate around but it isn't necessarily from them; rather it often as not emerges from the toxic pools that create and sustain GamerGate: Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan. Such sites host a United Nations of latter day online terror, from white supremacists to men's rights activists to nihilists who just want to hurt as many people as they can for laughs. What this SXSW debacle exposes is the simple reality that, left unchecked, this pestilent swamp will spawn terrorism.”
What it also exposes is SXSW’s seeming ignorance of the difference between speech and terror. The LevelUp panel was canceled in the name of “preserving the sanctity of the big tent”; the harassment summit was convened in the name of bringing “a diverse range of voices together to facilitate meaningful dialogue in an atmosphere of civility and respect.” But there is dialogue, and there are men with guns breaking into your home and potentially shooting you in the face. A group that engages in the latter can reasonably be said to have forsaken its right to participate in the former.
Or, to make an analogy of my own: I believe that abortion access should not be restricted by law. Most Republican presidential candidates believe the opposite. I can disagree with them, I can criticize them, and I can vote against them, but I would never seek to stop them from campaigning; forcibly suppressing “bad” opinions is the quickest route to tyranny, so they have the right to argue their case. If, however, these candidates stopped campaigning, and resorted to violent measures — if they called in bomb threats to clinics, or shot abortion doctors, as some extremists have in fact done — they would no longer be arguing. They would be terrorists, engaging in the very forcible suppression of opinions that I (and most reasonable people) deplore. And I would not be able to support any organization that gave those terrorists a platform from which to recruit, let alone an event in which abortion doctors and abortion clinic bombers were put in a room and instructed to talk out their differences. Sinders stressed that she feels GamerGaters have the right to propose and conduct their own panels. And it may very well be true that the GamerGate panelists do not engage in harassment online, or even that they abhor it. (Though why they’d be associating with a movement primarily known for it is a mystery for the ages.) But for an outside observer, right now, it is harder than it should be to see the difference between SXSW’s treatment of GamerGate and someone telling an abortion doctor to hug it out with the guy who’s been threatening to bomb his clinic. Pleading ignorance is not enough: Even without panelists actively seeking to keep SXSW security informed, GamerGate’s violence is by now the stuff of lengthy magazine profiles and John Oliver segments. If you work in the tech and/or feminist community, or if you just keep an eye on the news, you know. The question is whether you care.
Because when you don’t care — when you don’t work with those being threatened, when you don’t see a difference between a security concern and a “debate,” when you insist on treating positions as equivalent when only one of them uses guns and death threats to prove a point — this is what happens. People who never intended to talk about GamerGate end up talking about it for weeks, or possibly months. And the conversation that could have been had — that tech-centric, deep-nerd, perfect-for-SXSW panel on designing user interfaces — goes missing, silenced in the sheer fight to have a voice at all.
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Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributor. She is the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady