SXSW Scandal: How Panel Cancelations Led to a PR Mess

By: Alexa Gonzaga

SXSW is known for bringing leaders from the technology and entertainment industries together, but recently the festival organizers came under fire for canceling two panels related to gaming.

Prior to its cancelation, one of the panels, entitled “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games,” drew the ire of several individuals involved with the Gamergate movement. Gamergate supporters flooded the “Level Up” panel’s page on SXSW’s website with negative comments and even formed their own panel entitled “Save Point: A Discussion on the Gaming Community.”

For those who are unfamiliar, the Gamergate movement concerns sexism and progressivism in video game culture and is notorious for the harassment of several women in the gaming and tech industries. Those who have spoken up against the movement or have expressed opposing ideas have been subjected to vicious online attacks that have extended into real-life threats of violence.

Despite concerns raised by “Level Up” panelists about security and the possibility of a hostile environment created by Gamergate supporters, SXSW organizers approved the Gamergate-backed panel in the interest of representing all viewpoints.

However, SXSW organizers would later back up and cancel both panels, citing “threats of on-site violence.”

This immediately caused widespread backlash. Buzzfeed and Vox Media, both major participants in SXSW, threatened to pull out of all panels they were involved in if the canceled panels weren’t reinstated. Many criticized SXSW organizers for bowing to threats and essentially giving the violent opposition what they wanted. Others found it ironic that a panel about online harassment was canceled due to online harassment.

After days of dealing with the repercussions, SXSW organizers eventually decided to reinstate both canceled panels and add a daylong summit on online harassment. “By cancelling two sessions, we sent an unintended message that SXSW not only tolerates online harassment but condones it, and for that we are truly sorry,” the organizers wrote in a blog post.

Although the organizers of SXSW eventually reversed their original decision, this controversy serves as a lesson on how not to react to online harassment. As future PR professionals, it’s important to be mindful of the messages our actions send to those directly affected and to the community as a whole.