/Social media gadflies gather for airing of grievances with Trump

Social media gadflies gather for airing of grievances with Trump

The White House

Last month, Twitter said it will begin labeling tweets from world leaders that violate its policies. | Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

President Donald Trump is bringing some of social media’s most divisive right-wing personalities to the White House on Thursday to air their complaints against the same online platforms he wields so often.

Nobody from Facebook, Twitter or Google has been invited to attend the gathering— raising doubts that any serious change will result from what the White House has billed as a discussion of “opportunities and challenges of today’s online environment.” Instead, the guests confirmed so far are prominent boosters of the allegation that social media platforms systematically blacklist and stifle conservative voices, a theme that Trump himself has increasingly sounded as the 2020 election has begun to heat up.

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“A big subject today at the White House Social Media Summit will be the tremendous dishonesty, bias, discrimination and suppression practiced by certain companies,” Trump said Thursday morning via Twitter — one of the Silicon Valley giants he has singled out for criticism. “We will not let them get away with it much longer.”

The invited guests include far-right activist Ali Alexander, who infamously claimed last month that Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who has Indian and Jamaican heritage, is “not an American Black” in a tweet shared by Donald Trump Jr., as well as YourVoice America host Bill Mitchell, who has promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory alleging that Trump is waging a secret war against pedophiles and “deep state” saboteurs.Another expected attendee is James O’Keefe, whose undercover sting outfit Project Veritas has released what critics say are selectively edited videos depicting organizations ranging from Google to Planned Parenthood as biased and corrupt.

Pro-Trump political cartoonist Ben Garrison was also among those slated to attend, but the White House rescinded his invitation, POLITICO Playbook reported Wednesday, amid complaints that his work has promoted anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish financiers controlling world events.

The event is also expected to include some less-incendiary figures. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), both staunch supporters of Trump and critics of the tech industry, told POLITICO they will attend.

Democrats — including some who have their own beefs with Silicon Valley — have already scoffed at the meeting. They said the guest list undermines the idea that Trump is trying to have a serious discussion.

“I’ve never seen evidence of tech firm bias against conservatives,” said House Judiciary antitrust Chairman David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who is pursuing his own investigation of anti-competitive behavior in the tech industry. “If someone wants to show me some empirical data, instead of some alt-right member’s paranoid claims, I’d appreciate it. In the meantime, it would be great if President Trump would get serious about antitrust.”

Conservatives attending the event insisted they have real grievances to air. They say Facebook, Twitter and Google-owned YouTube have applied their rules inconsistently while banishing conservatives, downplaying their content or making it harder for them to generate ad revenue.

“These seemingly outstanding, disturbing data points are now becoming a very, very troubling pattern,” said Charlie Kirk, president of the conservative student advocacy group Turning Point USA, who plans to attend Thursday’s summit.

Slated to begin at 3 p.m., the summit is expected to include a panel discussion and workshop with attendees, as well as remarks from Trump.

Other conservatives expected to attend include Human Events publisher Will Chamberlain, PragerU executive director Allen Estrin, Media Research Center senior vice president Ed Molchany and social media user Carpe Donktum, who has built an online following by distributing pro-Trump memes. Also slated to attend is Tim Pool, an independent journalist who describes himself as a pro-Bernie Sanders social liberal but whose views on issues including social media bias and immigration often align with conservatives’.

“[Social media companies] are becoming more involved in taking the lead on public persuasion by manipulating search and creating algorithms that suppress ideas that they simply don’t like. So the hope is that we change that because we do believe in freedom of speech,” said Marissa Streit, the chief executive officer of PragerU, a right-wing advocacy group.

Google, Facebook and Twitter declined to comment for this story.

The rising heat from the right comes as the companies have gingerly taken recent steps to address complaints — including from Democrats — that they are too slow to take down abusive, threatening or violent content.

In May, for example, Facebook banned a handful of what it called “dangerous” users, including fringe right-wing figures like conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulos and activist Laura Loomer, who had directed anti-Muslim insults at Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). Those three are not expected to attend Thursday’s meeting.

Last month, Twitter said it will begin labeling tweets from world leaders that violate its policies — a move that appeared aimed at addressing Trump’s sometimes-bombastic attacks on his critics.

The bias accusations can be politically useful for Republican strategists, who have called them a helpful tool in firing up the GOP base, much like the decades of accusations of liberal bias in the news media.

The charges can also shape the companies’ behavior, as seen in Facebook’s reaction in 2016 to conservatives’ accusations of alleged liberal bias in its now-defunct “trending news” feature. After Republicans like then-Senate Commerce ChairmanJohn Thune (R-S.D.) weighed in on the issue, Facebook abandoned human curation of the feature, which then became rife with fabricated news stories in the months before the presidential election.

People airing such accusations Thursday will most likely find Trump is all ears, even as he continues to be one of modern politics’ most prolific users of Facebook and Twitter to amplify his message.

In a Fox Business interview last month, the president claimed that companies like Google and Twitter are “trying to rig” the 2020 election. He also expounded upon his ongoing complaint that social media companies make it more difficult to follow conservative leaders or see content they’ve posted — including his own personal Twitter account, which has nearly 62 million followers.

“Twitter is just terrible, what they do,” he said in the interview. “I’ve had so many people come to me, ‘Sir, I can’t join you on Twitter.’ I see what’s happening, 100 percent!”

His comments followed a May tweet in which Trump said he was “continuing to monitor the censorship of AMERICAN CITIZENS on social media platforms.” Later that month, the White House created an online form to solicit complaints from people who believe social media companies have wrongly punished them.

The website, which was shared with the White House’s 18.5 million Twitter followers, declared: “SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS should advance FREEDOM OF SPEECH.” That form is now closed but a landing page says the administration “received thousands of responses.” White House spokesperson Judd Deere told POLITICO those complaints were one of the driving forces for the summit.

Twitter, Facebook and Google have denied that politics is a factor in decisions to ban certain users or demote their content, but the bias accusations have found echoes from Republican lawmakers, some of whom have called for repealing or reducing the online industry’s decades-old legal immunity for user-posted content.

Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, a prominent Silicon Valley critic, introduced a bill last month that would take liability protections away from large internet companies that can’t prove to government auditors that they’re politically neutral. Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) separately said this week that he’s exploring a bill that would require companies to comply with “best business practices” to keep their Section 230 immunity.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing next week on claims that Google censors conservative viewpoints. In a similar hearing he convened on the subject in April, he said tech companies “using the powers of monopoly to censor political speech” could pose an antitrust issue.

The president previously hosted a similar summit to address conservatives’ concerns about censorship on college campuses. In March, Trump stood alongside more than 100 students as he signed an executive order requiring colleges with federal funding to promote free inquiry and debate, though POLITICO reported the order did not actually impose new requirements on colleges.

“The more of us that come together can create a stronger outcry and a better front so that people will pay attention to what’s going on,” Streit said. “The White House is at the top. People pay attention to what the White House is discussing.”

But actual government regulation to combat the alleged bias appears unlikely. Democrats control the House and some conservatives say having the government dictate how private companies must treat speech would run counter to conservative values. There may be at least some component of Thursday’s summit that addresses those notes of caution.

“I am against regulation,” said Ryan Fournier, co-founder of Students for Trump, who’s planning to attend the summit. “But I do believe there needs to be a conversation. These platforms are exponentially large, and they do have good and bad effects on democracy.”

Cristiano Lima contributed to this report.

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