Why SXSW’s ‘Harassment Summit’ Is a Terrible Solution to Harassment

Here’s what we learned from the women targeted.

Sady DoyleNovember 9, 2015

Gamers congregate for an event at SXSW Interactive 2011 in Austin, TX. (Flickr / Kris Krug)

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.

Sady Doyle is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. 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.
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