Even the conversation about fixing the web’s harassment problem is not immune to the destructive power of online harassment itself. At the popular interactive media convention South by Southwest this week, a summit dedicated to discussing harassment wound up provoking the same sort of behavior it hoped to stop.
It started when porn star Mercedes Carrera took to Twitter and YouTube to talk smack about the video game developer and anti-harassment activist Randi Lee Harper. Harper had been a speaker over the weekend during a controversial summit about online harassment, while Carrera was slotted as a speaker Tuesday on a panel backed by the Gamergate movement about the gaming industry’s cultural landscape. Both panels had previously been canceled due to violent threats, but then reinstated by SXSW after criticism of its bowing to internet bullies.
When SXSW organizers were made aware of the smack-talking, they asked that Carrera hold her tongue. Carrera deleted the YouTube video. Those who saw it before it was deleted, say it spoke poorly of Harper and blamed her for igniting the controversy surrounding both panels. But Carrera refused to delete derogatory tweets, telling her followers she would rather step down from the panel than be censored.
Even the presence of police at the harassment summit, it seems, could not stop harassment from overshadowing its message. Harper complained that Carrera’s statements online violated the SXSW conference’s code of conduct, though the conference’s terms and conditions doesn’t address speakers’ behavior toward one another.
Carrera, meanwhile, told me that her tweets and YouTube video were simply a response to earlier comments about her made months earlier by Harper.
“I am not a ‘harasser’ at all, and she has libeled me repeatedly,” Carrera said. “The bottom line is that SXSW didn’t want me speaking publicly on the fact that our panel was given poor placement and an unpopular day and time as a means to placate Harper.”
SXSW confirmed that the panel, “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community,” continued as scheduled on Tuesday but would not comment on Carrera’s removal from it. Her name was, however, removed, from the panel’s webpage. Carrera did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the matter, nor did the other panelists. According to an attendee, approximately 40 people showed up for the discussion.
SXSW decided to host a day-long anti-harassment summit after threats of violence initially led the conference to cancel all panels related to the so-called Gamergate controversy, the brutish civil war that erupted in the gaming industry last fall over identity, censorship and politics in gaming. The SavePoint panel was also restored. But those supporting both groups were not entirely happy with SXSW’s response to the matter: the harassment summit was hosted in a location isolated from the main conference activity and poorly attended, while the gaming panel, supporters argued, was moved to an “unpopular day.”
The biggest disappointment here though is not the name-calling. It’s the fact that SXSW proved how hard it is to have a civil discourse about a topic that needs such a conversation so badly. In the past, female gamers have been forced out of their homes by Gamergate threats and bomb threats have forced the evacuation of Gamergate gatherings. SXSW sought to make the physical place where the harassment conversation took place safe, but it couldn’t control the conversation once it moved online. And that’s not good for anyone.
How do we have constructive conversations when some topics seem just too toxic to touch?
This post has been updated to include comments from Mercedes Carrera.