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Is SXSW apology, Harassment Summit enough for jilted panelists?

Organizers of the contentious gaming panel South by Southwest canceled over threats of violence but then reinstated – along with adding an Online Harassment Summit – aren't convinced they'll participate in next year's festival. 

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Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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South by Southwest Interactive announced Friday that the two gaming-related panels it canceled earlier this week will be reinstated as part of a larger Online Harassment Summit at its 2016 festival.

Organizers of the annual event, which attracts tens of thousands of tech, music, and film industry professionals to Austin every year, previously said that threats of violence related to the panels led to canceling talks "focused on the GamerGate controversy."

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But SXSW received significant blowback after the cuts were publicized, with many critics complaining the festival caved to intimidation by removing the panels, one of which focused on ideas for how video game developers can use design to combat harassment in gaming. That panel was not intended to focus on GamerGate, the hashtag associated with intense harassment of women in gaming. 

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"Earlier this week we made a mistake," Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW, wrote in a blog post. “By canceling 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 newly formed summit is "a great step in the right direction," said Caroline Sinders, organizer of the harassment-focused gaming panel “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games,” which SXSW reinstated Friday.

Sinders and her copresenters have given suggestions to SXSW about inviting a balanced lineup of speakers and creating a comfortable environment for the harassment summit. 

Ms. Sinders said, however, that she and her fellow panelists aren’t sure yet whether they'll participate in the summit or agree to present the panel at next year's festival. "We still need to have a very specific conversation around security."

Ensuring a secure environment for the conversation, Sinders said, is still a concern. “We want to create the most comfortable environment around that,” she said.

The inclusion of the “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community” panel is primarily what gives her pause. Sinders said she was unsure about the SavePoint panel's expertise in the area.

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"I'm curious around their expertise or research within harassment," she said via e-mail. "I can only speak for myself, but I am a practitioner around [user experience] design and user research. I additionally mentor women who have been victims of harassment. I understand they may have received harassment, but I wonder what their panel would cover."

According to panel organizer Perry Jones, SavePoint will now focus on harassment, and will deal with "how media covers harassment and how that can even lead to more harassment of victims and of affiliate parties."

"We don’t mind the changes," said Mr. Jones. "We welcome the changes, and these are issues that need to be talked about and we’re more than happy to discuss them."

Mr. Jones reiterated that his panel is not explicitly GamerGate-focused, though. Still, he said, "the panel certainly talks about some issues that are central to that movement." 

The newly formed Online Harassment Summit features a wide array of speakers, including Brianna Wu of Giant Spacekat, writer and director Soraya Chemaly, and Rep. Katherine Clark (D) of Massachusetts, who wrote SXSW officials asking them to reinstate Sinders' panel.