SXSW stepped into an online sexual harassment quagmire. Can it recover?

October 28, 2015, 8:13 PM UTC
A general view of atmosphere at the SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival held at the Auditorium Shores in Austin, Texas.
Photograph by Mark Davis—Getty Images

SXSW, an annual set of festivals devoted to music, film, and tech, has developed the reputation of being simultaneously heavily corporate and heavily hipster. If that wasn’t enough of a conflict to make people’s heads explode, SXSW’s new role as the latest ground zero of an ongoing online harassment controversy, often referred to as Gamergate, probably will.

On Monday, SXSW unexpectedly canceled two discussion panels seen as representing two sides of a long-standing acrimonious discussion about online harassment of women. The reason: threats of violence received by the organization. The move has resulted in anger, complaints on all sides, and heavy criticism. The big question now is whether SXSW organizers can find a path that will calm the waters—or if the conference will remain sunk in the mud.

The hostility many women experience online has become an epidemic. Nearly 40% of adult Internet users say they’ve faced physical threats, cyber-bullying, and sexual harassment, according to a Pew Research Center report last year.

Gamergate is one extreme example of this phenomenon. The term is usually used to describe an ongoing confrontation between two segments of gaming enthusiasts over how women are treated in gaming and alleged unethical practices of some gaming journalists. The conflict immediately sparked harassment of many— including death and rape threats toward female game developers and commentators who had been critical of the stereotyped way many video games portray women.

SXSW had authorized two panels as part of its 2016 lineup. One, called Level Up (gaming terminology for progressing to the next level of player abilities), focused on creating better abuse reporting systems in gaming. The panel included participants who had been targets of Gamergate harassment.

The other panel, titled SavePoint (a term for a place in a game where a player can save all progress), was putatively about gaming journalism and the “current social/political landscape in the gaming community.” However, the organizers were associated with Gamergate and so many viewed the panel as pro-Gamergate.

On Monday, a week after revealing the event schedules, the organizers announced that, because of “numerous threats of on-site violence related to this programming,” they were canceling both panels. And then all hell broke loose.

Not only was there heavy criticism by those supporting both panels, but BuzzFeed said it would withdraw from any participation unless SXSW reversed its decision. Vox Media then pulled out of the festival “unless its organizers take this issue seriously and take appropriate steps to correct.” The company said it would “work to find an alternative forum for this conversation.”

Meanwhile, Perry Jones, founder of the Open Gaming Society and organizer of the SavePoint panel, wrote that “we’ve been overwhelmed with both support and disdain” but that he would pursue a backup plan of funding and hosting a panel to run at the same time of SXSW.

“I was shocked” after hearing of the cancellation, said Randi Harper, founder of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative and a speaker on the LevelUp panel. “We tried to reach out to them about security. Every conference I’ve spoken at has received some level of threats. This was the first time I got cancelled on, and I was surprised. They should have reached out to people experienced with these situations and I don’t think they did that.”

Fortune contacted SXSW but did not get a response before publication.

Now the question is whether SXSW can improve the situation. According to a report, organizers are considering a separate all-day event on online harassment and have offered to reinstate the LevelUp panel. But Harper thinks that bringing back only one of the panels would be a mistake at this time.

“If they only reinstate one, I think the conversation going forward is going to be a lot different,” Harper said. “I’d be concerned about the safety of people at SXSW at this point. I don’t entirely know what would happen. There’s no winning move. There are things they could do which would help, but not everyone is going to be happy with any decision they make going forward from this.”

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