AUSTIN – Russian hackers. Allegations of federal wiretapping. Online leaks of purported CIA documents.
There will be no lack of controversial issues to dissect at this year’s SXSW Conference & Festivals, which begins Friday and runs through Mar. 19. And more so than in past years, this year’s massive gathering of tech, film and music enthusiasts – usually equated with tech innovation and startups – will have a stronger-than-ever focus on politics.
Former Vice President Joe Biden and CNN’s Van Jones are scheduled to speak. Panel discussions, reflecting the recent election of President Donald Trump, range from “Startup Investing during the Trump Years” to “The War at Home: Trump and the Mainstream Media” and “Head Fakes and Pivots: Trump Punks Silicon Valley.”
“SXSW is the place for great thinkers and innovators,” said Erin Schrode, 25, activist and social entrepreneur who will lead a discussion on millennials and activism. “At this moment in history, how can SXSW not dive into politics?”
This week, the gathering, now in its 31st year, got another controversial issue to debate: The WikiLeaks release of thousands of documents purportedly detailing how the Central Intelligence Agency hacks into smartphones and Internet-connected televisions.
There will still be healthy servings of startups strategy, robotics and self-driving cars. But, six weeks into the Trump administration – and all the controversies that have swirled around it – SXSW this year will delve deeper than ever into how Washington could impact the tech and media worlds – a departure seemingly embraced by speakers and attendees.
SXSW has long had a political element to it. In 1993, then-Texas Gov. Ann Richards was the sole keynote speaker, and Al Gore, Rand Paul and Chelsea Clinton have all given talks. Last year, then-President Obama spoke at the event, drawing thousands of attendees.
But when Trump won the November election, Hugh Forrest, SXSW’s chief programming officer, knew he needed to ramp up the political programming, he said. He called his staff into a meeting to brainstorm how best to reflect the divisions and debate consuming the country. They came up with a programming track titled “Tech Under Trump” and began filling it with sessions and guest speakers.
“There is definitely a degree of politics or political focus that may not have been there in previous years,” Forrest said. “We hope people walk away with a little better understanding of issues and the players driving the issues.”
Amanda Quraishi, an Austin-based digital consultant and interfaith activist, said she had an early idea for a SXSW panel discussion. But as the number of hate crimes across the country mounted following Trump’s election, she and her fellow panelists switched their focus. On Tuesday , they’ll give a panel discussion titled “From Trump to Trolls: How Muslim Media Fights Back.”
“Right now, politics is on everybody’s minds all the time,” Quraishi said. “America has had an awakening of what it means to live in a democracy and that it requires a lot of ongoing engagement with the process.”
She applauded SXSW organizers for reflecting the mood of the country in their programming. “They manage to be very nimble from year to year and come up with programming that’s very pertinent right now,” Quraishi said.
SXSW briefly became part of the political story earlier this month when a New York musician scheduled to perform at SXSW objected to language in his contract that warned that U.S. immigration agents may be contacted if an international artist violated the performance agreement.
The musician, Felix Walworth, tweeted his concern, which got nearly 4,000 retweets, and drew parallels to the increased immigration raids sweeping the country under Trump’s executive orders. SXSW officials called it a misunderstanding, stressing that no artist in its 30-year history had ever been reported to federal immigration agents. The contract provision was later rescinded.
Politics won’t just play out in panel discussions and speeches. Documentary filmmaker Jason Pollock said he considered other film festivals to premiere his film, Stranger Fruit, which explores the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. He chose SXSW because he hopes the multitude of tech influencers and music execs there will spread the film’s message wider and farther than Cannes or Sundance ever could, he said.
The film premieres at SXSW on Saturday, followed by a panel discussion on Monday with Pollock and Brown’s parents.
“We’re going to be able to create a real movement around Michael Brown because of the people who attend that festival,” Pollock said. “At other film festivals, you get film critics, distributors and industry folks. At SXSW, it’s the world.”
Schrode, the millennial activist, said she was initially surprised when SXSW contacted her in December and invited her to give a talk on political activism. But then she realized what a natural pairing SXSW and politics make, she said.
“It’s undeniable that Trump and the Trump administration are having an existentially larger impact than anyone ever thought on all our industries,” said Schrode, who ran for Congress last year in California's District 2. “Certainly, for SXSW to ignore that would be unnatural and irresponsible. After I wrapped my head around that, I thought, ‘Absolutely!’”