The Power of Satire: Baratunde Thurston's SXSW Keynote

Mar 10, 2012

The SXSW Interactive kickoff keynote address was delivered today by Baratunde Thurston. That name may not be widely familiar outside plugged-in circles, but Thurston’s work is: He’s a comedian and political satirist who's driven the digital development of satirical newspaper The Onion.

He’s also an author that discusses topics from an African-American perspective. His first book, “How to Be Black,” was just published. He entwined the threads of his heritage and digital connectivity by describing how his mother, raised in rural Pennsylvania, came to join in the Black Power movement. “She changed her social networks!” Thurston said, displaying pictures on his mother marching in the street.  

But the Onion’s online content – and the strange way fake news can bleed over into real-life events – was another theme of Thurston’s speech: Earlier this year, Republican Rep. John Fleming shared a fictional Onion article, “Planned Parenthood Opens $8 Billion Abortionplex,” with his followers on Facebook, allegedly believing the article to be real.

Thurston notes the resulting coverage “unintentionally created a platform” where “expression and comment and satire” took place on the issue of abortion, outside of the initial article.

While political satire like The Onion, “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” can challenge people’s assumptions, Thurston pointed to the power of satire in countries where political subversion can be dangerous –  or even deadly.

“You can almost measure the freedom of a society by its tolerance for its satirists,” Thurston said. In Egypt, for example, a “Daily Show”-style program hosted by Bassem Youssef contrasts protest on the street with state-run media.  And in Iran, “Parazit” (loosely translated as “Static”) mashes-up official pronouncements with biting commentary from the show producers.

And this being a tech conference, Thurston called for a greater incorporation of humor into our increasingly digitized lives. Quoting former NBC Entertainment executive Ben Silverman, he said "The code writer and the screenwriter have to work together."

Thurston cited an example in Google Voice, an application where you can send text messages to cell phones from your computer. Thurston started drafting a ridiculously long text just to see what the app’s response would be; after a couple thousand words, the app stopped displaying a word count, and instead displayed “Really?”

In order to more meaningfully live in a digital age with rapidly collapsing borders, “we need to this level of production, creation, humanity,” Thurston said.

You can follow the conversation surrounding Thurston’s talk at hashtag #keynotunde. He’s also launched a  new organization, Cultivated Wit, to expand upon these ideas.