Sure, the SXSW conference, with its opulent spreads, nonstop networking, and startup lingo, can feel like an episode of Silicon Valley. But in 2018, even the “innovators” and “disruptors” can only think about President Donald Trump.
Between a Saturday keynote from author Ta-Nehisi Coates and the night’s performance by pop star Flo Rida, I’m at 816 Congress Avenue listening to Rep. Will Hurd—the only male Black Republican from Texas serving in the House—criticize POTUS’ $70 billion border wall. He’s here to advocate for drone deregulation alongside the Small UAV Coalition and says smart walls are a more cost-effective security solution.
With this futuristic tech, you can detect if it’s a person or a rabbit on the border, he says, and then send in a drone to monitor potential threats. George K. Mathew, CEO of drone analytics outfit Kespry, adds that after Hurricane Harvey, “we flew over 700 missions to get claims adjudicated.” He says drones can assess damage on homes exponentially quicker—three per hour, versus three per day—and that “this generation’s greatest calling” will be how technology changes the very nature of work.
This is boilerplate SXSW speak: Write the future by embracing free markets and gadgets. Only this time Trump’s shadow looms closely.
In Austin, Texas, political and technology leaders like Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Melinda Gates, and celebrity chef José Andrés are criticizing the president. Even the conference’s conservatives like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Fox News pundit Guy Benson hail from the “Never Trump” camp.
Varadkar writes off Trump’s proposed tariffs on foreign steel as not “good for anyone”; Khan reads mean tweets and calls on the tech industry to crack down on hate speech in the information age, while admitting that he and Trump don’t have the best relationship; Sanders criticizes the president for not making diplomacy a priority and “dismembering the State Department;” Gates criticizes the president for not respecting women; Schwarzenegger reignites his long-simmering feud, joking that he doesn’t know “why the Russians make him say certain things… it’s beyond me.”
Andrés tosses in a food analogy, during a panel with Recode, for good measure.
“We don’t all like the same music and we don’t all like the same foods. But we respect people liking other foods and we respect people liking other musicians. That’s not any different with the president. I think the potential for improvement is huge.” the TV restaurateur says.
The conference is showing off flying taxis and 3D-printed houses that can be built in a day, but it’s also scheming against Trump’s power. And, you know, venting.
Hurd, the 40-year-old Texas Republican here to embrace drones, wrote a DACA-embracing immigration bill that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) took to the Senate.
It is also one of the most gerrymandered slabs of land in the country. At Sunday’s “how gerrymandering is reshaping politics” SXSW panel, lawyers offer ways to fix “the inherent conflict of interest” that comes with lawmakers’ pursuit of keeping power. Democrats and Republicans do it, but since 2010, the Republicans have eviscerated their left-leaning colleagues on the Hill: They’ve drawn borders for 210 House seats, compared to the Democrats’ paltry 44.
Allison Riggs, of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, has been litigating Republican redistricting since 2011 on behalf of the NAACP, maintaining that officials use “race as a proxy” to disenfranchise Democrats.
Panelists point to tools citizens can use to track these sweeping changes like All About Redistricting, and data analytics tech that will track voter-suppression efforts by Trump’s Civil Rights unit in the Justice Department. But, as Loyola law professor Justin Levitt says, game-changing grassroots pushback is happening in Michigan, on social media, right now.
“In what started in a Facebook post,” Loyola professor Justin Levitt says, “[They] got 400,000 signatures, in the heart of winter in Michigan, with no budget.”
It was actually 425,00, according to the Detroit Free Press, signatures on an anti-gerrymandering petition to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot for November. It could change the state constitution to mandate voting districts be drawn by a citizen-led third-party panel.
But this excitement about Facebook activism proves to be a fleeting moment of SXSW triumph for the social network.
“We’ve got our work caught out for us,” Facebook’s Head of News Product Alex Hardiman says. “There is no silver bullet.”
Facebook’s platform gave rise to a forest of exploitive fake news that impacted the 2016 election. Many of it came via Russian trolls seeking to cultivate division and with a big-picture goal to support candidate Trump; likely as a result, the social network drastically changed your News Feed—there is less news now.
Hardiman is addressing a Hilton ballroom full of nervous publishers who have seen their pageview numbers sanded down since Facebook’s latest arbitrary pivot. She says the plan this year is to emphasize higher-quality and verified news outlets, help its users differentiate the fake clickbait from real journalism, work with publishers to diversify their work with an eye toward new streaming TV arm Facebook Watch, be less U.S.-centric in global markets, and even see if subscription models can work for news outlets with Facebook as an intermediary.
Hardiman admits that Facebook could have been more transparent with publishers while it tweaked the algorithm (again). It remains unclear where the mission statement of enforcing a “de-prioritization of sensationalism and elevating quality” will draw its boundaries.
And, as someone asks during the Q&A, what if Mark Zuckerberg “just changes his mind again?”
Hardiman says that Facebook will never “play a part in censorship” and points to authoritarian governments cracking down on access to news as the urgent reason why. But it also means that conspiracy-peddling pro-Trump opportunists like Alex Jones will continue to enjoy engaging with fans on Facebook.
The next day, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour gets at the fundamental problem during her SXSW panel: “Our facts are being compromised.” By the president she says, and also via the exploitation of Facebook. But she notes that in France, President Emmanuel Macron actively fought the Russian troll machine and figured out how to win “from the middle” in May.
Amanpour’s panel was supposed to be about modern romance, and at a listening party Thursday for South Korean rapper Jay Park’s English-language debut EP (he just signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation) my ice-breaker with European tech executives is Trump talk. More than anything, people want to vent about the level of discourse on the internet.
Fox News’ Guy Benson on Monday says that on social media, people “win debates by preventing them from actually happening” because of the “exhaustive politicization” of everything. Ta-Nehisi Coates on Saturday says that Trump’s rise was a direct response to America electing Barack Obama and that for good measure the president isn’t a “reflective” person.
Two years ago it was simple and naively optimistic at SXSW. Few remember the platitudes Obama spoke in, just that he popped in for tacos in South Austin. Twitter engagement meant cheerful selfies from the Long Center. But the age of Trump has come for the tech bros, too, and now those gooey breakfast tacos are fuel for the resistance.