NEW YORK, N.Y. – Popular online media companies BuzzFeed and Vox Media say they may pull out of the SXSW Interactive festival held in Austin, Texas, after the festival cancelled two panels related to gaming and online harassment, citing threats of violence.
The tech festival, held annually in March, attracts 33,000-plus attendees from 82 countries and is part of the larger SXSW festival that also includes music, film and educational conferences. The gathering has a looser reputation than bigger tech conferences like the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, but it has become bigger and more corporate in recent years.
In a blog posting Monday, SXSW Interactive Director Hugh Forrest said the festival was cancelling two sessions for the 2016 event: “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community” and “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games” because the panels garnered threats of “on-site violence related to this programing.”
“Maintaining civil and respectful dialogue within the big tent is more important than any particular session,” Forrest wrote.
Both panels are related to the online campaign dubbed “GamerGate” that began last fall, during which women were harassed for criticizing the lack of diversity in the video game industry and women’s portrayal in it. Neither of the panels mentions GamerGate specifically.
The “SavePoint” talk was set to discuss the “current social/political landscape in the gaming community” and the “Level Up” panel included several women who have been subjected to the harassment.
On Tuesday, three executives at BuzzFeed, which has had a major presence at the festival over the past several years, sent a letter to director Forrest saying they would “feel compelled” to withdraw BuzzFeed staffers from the panels they are on or moderating if the panels aren’t reinstated.
“Digital harassment — of activists of all political stripes, journalists, and women in those fields or participating in virtually any other form of digital speech — has emerged as an urgent challenge for the tech companies for whom your conference is an important forum,” the letter states.
Vox Media, the company behind popular sites including food-focused Eater, video game blog Polygon, and other news and tech sites, released a statement saying it would not participate in the festival “unless its organizers take this issue seriously and take appropriate steps to correct it. We will work to find an alternative forum for this conversation and invite others who feel the same to join us.”
SXSW did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
This story has been corrected to more accurately describe the panels that were cancelled.