Brianna Wu: SXSW controversy shines a light on harassment

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A frequent target of online threats herself, Arlington resident and software engineer Brianna Wu is as mad as anyone that SXSW Interactive canceled a discussion of the harassment of women in gaming proposed for its upcoming conference. But she has found a silver lining to the cloud surrounding the tech culture conference since: Conversations about the harassment of women online have finally become a big-ticket issue that can no longer be ignored.

“It would have been a blip on the radar last year,” said Wu, head of development of Boston game company Giant Spacekat, who became a high-profile target of threats and harassment last year. “The public is aware now that women are targeted online in a way that’s criminal and extremely damaging. People are realizing it’s something they can’t ignore any longer.”

This week, premier tech culture SXSW Interactive kicked off a firestorm after it decided to cancel two panels on the schedule for its March 2016 conference in Austin, including a session that focused on combating harassment in the gaming community. Director Hugh Forest cited “numerous threats of on-site violence related to this programming” in a notice published online.

A spirited backlash followed: Buzzfeed threatened to withdraw its speakers unless the organizers found a way to “carry on important conversations in the face of harassment,” and Vox Media followed suit. US Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts joined several prominent women leaders speaking out against the decision. “By canceling the panel, SXSW has assisted those who wish to silence women by threatening violence,” Clark wrote in a letter posted on Twitter.

By the end of the day, Forest had an update. SXSW was “evaluating several programming solutions” and “working with local law enforcement to assess the various threats.” Re/code reported that a day-long session discussing harassment was a possibility.

Wu is due to participate in two panels but has said she will withdraw unless a conversation about harassment is reinstated. In March this year she canceled her company’s appearance at the PAX East gaming conference after her family and colleagues received death threats from the online group Gamergate, which has earned a reputation for turning on women who speak up about feminist causes online. Wu made the decision after the conference failed to respond to requests for additional security.

In the last several months, online harassment in the games and on online forums has found the media spotlight.

Last year, Pew Research published the results of its first ever survey of harassment online. About 40 percent of people on the Internet has experienced some form of harassment online and young women see the worst of it. The keynote session at the Online News Association discussed how harassment of women journalists had intensified. The latest issue of Wired magazine features a roundtable discussion of online harassment including Twitter’s vice president of trust and safety, Del Harvey, and Anita Sarkeesian who hosts a feminist YouTube show and became a Gamergate target.

“What has changed in the media landscape last year is that Gamergate has been so terrible that it has forced these industries to take a look at these issues,” Wu said, and the reaction from Vox Media and Buzzfeed is a symptom of that change.

Among the things that SXSW is taking heat for: It accepted and then canceled a session that set out to highlight harassment facing women of color, according to session organizers. That session was put together by Shireen Mitchell, the founder of Digital Sistas, a Washington, D.C., outfit that helps place women of color in tech and the STEM fields.

“Gaming harassment is only a sliver of all the harassment,” Mitchell said. “The voices from women of color is missing and that’s why I wanted to do the session.” Her co-panelist, Arthur Chu, published a detailed account of the exchange earlier this week.

Mitchell said she was shocked at the response this year. She said she led a panel on harassment at the last SXSW session in March that received no untoward attention.

According to Re/code, an announcement from SXSW is expected this week.

SXSW did not respond to a request for comment.

Updated Oct. 29 to correct the number of panels Briannu Wu was scheduled to participate in at SXSW to two.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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