Tech's Harassment Problem Is Much Bigger Than This SXSW Catastrophe

We need to give victims of abuse a voice.

Here we go again.

On Monday, hipster media festival South by Southwest (SXSW) made the curious decision to cancel two panels about the video game community. Apparently, there had been "numerous threats of on-site violence" related to the two discussions, one of which was about harassment.

Many panned the decision to cancel the events, and BuzzFeed and Vox Media said Tuesday they would withdraw their own panels from the SXSW festival in protest.

Though it's not clear where -- or who -- the threats came from, this latest gaming controversy is like a mud-covered finger stuck deep into a raw wound.

The community has been bitterly divided ever since the rise of GamerGate, a diffuse and sometimes vaguely defined group that advocates for increased ethical standards in the media. To put it in the simplest terms possible, on one side, there are calls for better treatment of women in video games; on the other, cries for a more responsible gaming press.

The issues have yet to be resolved, which is why these SXSW panels -- which essentially would have been pro-GamerGate and anti-GamerGate events -- should have been relevant. But SXSW backed down, sending a strong message to people (and especially women) who experience harassment online.


"I expect every venue I speak at from now on to get increased bomb threats in an attempt to cancel it," Brianna Wu, an outspoken video game developer, told The Huffington Post in an email Tuesday. "This is a terrible precedent, not just for SXSW, but for the entire industry."

Festival organizers declined to comment on the record when reached by The Huffington Post.

Some online were quick to blame the SXSW threats on GamerGate itself.

The temptation is obvious: GamerGate -- whether its most vocal members admit it or not -- has been linked to violent threats before.

There's a bit of a routine at this point:

  1. An outspoken critic makes a point about video games -- that they treat women terribly, say.
  2. The critic is flooded by threats that, due to the magic of hashtags, appear to come from GamerGate supporters.
  3. The media reports on the threats.
  4. GamerGate supporters distance themselves, alleging there's no proof that the threats actually came from their ranks. Often, supporters will say that the media failed to do its job properly by reporting on the threats without verifying the identity of whatever troll slung them to begin with.

You can see the difficulty here. A movement like GamerGate allows people to participate anonymously online, but there's a lot of cross-pollination with people who don't keep their identities hidden. A bad actor can easily lash out against someone they disagree with, threatening bodily harm or worse, and slap a #GamerGate hashtag onto the message. You're left with victims who are mortified over the harassment they just received and who understandably wouldn't want to consider how "serious" the person on the other side of the screen might be.

That said, GamerGate insists that the media has it wrong. It doesn't harass people; miscellaneous jerks on the Internet do.

"A lot of it is just third-party trolls. I don't think it's GamerGate supporters. It's people trying to stir up trouble," Nick Robalik, a game developer who describes himself as happily "lumped in with GamerGate," told HuffPost in a phone interview Tuesday.

Robalik, who is also a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, was slated to appear at SavePoint, the other gaming panel SXSW canceled over violent threats. He claims that he's also been subjected to harassment online and points out that blaming GamerGate supporters for this situation doesn't make sense, since their panel was canceled, too.

"It's a great way to get press. Taking online threats seriously, to me, is pretty ridiculous," Robalik said.

Recent research shows that online threats often are "genuine," of course. And real or not, people who receive rape threats online might disagree that worrying over them is ridiculous.

Regardless, the unstoppable force has pretty clearly met the immovable object. Neither side of the GamerGate debate is giving ground. In reality, it doesn't really matter: The problems at play here are considerably bigger and worse than a war over video game culture.

siriwitp via Getty Images

For one thing, the SXSW situation has highlighted the considerable challenges faced by people who experience abuse online. It's not just that it's difficult for action to be taken against their harassers -- it's that sometimes it's impossible for victims to even be heard, let alone taken seriously.

Wu says the festival's organizers shouldn't have backed down in response to threats.

"If they don’t reverse course, they are going to turn the public perception of the conference into one that is hostile to women," Wu told HuffPost.

It might already be too late for SXSW to salvage its reputation on that front. Caitlin Dewey of The Washington Post reported Tuesday that organizers had shrugged off female panelists when they expressed security concerns prior to the events' cancellation. A wee bit of empathy could've gone a long way.

Another major issue: Content moderation. It needs to be harder for offenders to target victims online. In an interview with HuffPost earlier this year, Finn Brunton, an assistant professor of media, culture and communication at New York University, spoke about the challenges faced by platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

"You can automate so many different aspects of building a giant community platform on the Internet, but it's hard to automate [moderation]. ... The free speech of one group leads to muteness and withdrawal of threatened groups," he explained.

Artificial intelligence solutions of the sort deployed to catch verbal abusers in "League of Legends" could be a step in the right direction.

And, well, people could try being decent to one another. (Don't hold your breath.)

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