On Thursday, a group of right-wing figures including conspiracy theory boosters, Infowars regulars, video and meme makers known for racist and anti-immigrant content, Republican strategists, and at least two GOP lawmakers is headed to the White House to meet with President Donald Trump for a “social media summit.” The plan, according to White House spokesman Judd Deere, is to have “a robust conversation on the opportunities and challenges of today’s online environment.” Those challenges include a perceived anti-conservative bias on the part of internet companies that Trump said in a July 1 Fox interview is “possibly illegal.”
This event follows the launch of a White House website earlier this summer to poll people who feel they’ve been wrongfully censored by social media sites like Facebook or YouTube. “No matter your views, if you suspect political bias caused such an action to be taken against you, share your story with President Trump,” the site implored. Over the past year, Trump has gone on tirade after tirade against social media companies. This theme isn’t new. Last April, the then-Republican-led House Judiciary Committee invited pro-Trump Facebook personalities Diamond and Silk to testify about how they’re “censored” on social media. Earlier this year, Trump sat down with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to complain about how he’s been losing followers—about 0.04 percent of his followers, but losing followers nonetheless—a situation explained by Twitter’s effort to clean bot accounts off its platform that began last year. (Even if Trump has seen his numbers drop on some days, he’s jumped from 53.4 million followers in July of last year to 61.8 million followers now.)
While it’s true that the politics within the employee ranks of social media companies skew to the left, there’s been no compelling evidence of anti-conservative bias creeping into the major social networks. For one thing, just look how well conservatives tend to do on social media. Fox News dominates on Facebook: Over the past 12 months, the right-leaning cable network has logged 320.57 million likes, comments, and shares on Facebook, dwarfing CNN’s 178.47 million engagements over the same period, according to CrowdTangle data. Month after month, Trump outspends all the Democratic candidates combined on Facebook ads. Pro-Trump Facebook pages are titanic compared with their left counterparts’, with many boasting more than a million followers. Republican and fringe-right voices are simply very good at social media.
Their complaints, however, often revolve around something called “shadow banning,” which can mean (depending on who’s complaining) that their posts are no longer showing up in searches, they were de-verified, their reach was limited, or they were suspended all together. It’s true that social media sites make certain figures and posts harder to find as part of their efforts to reduce the spread of disinformation and hate—in theory, according to codes of conduct that narrowly define such behavior. In some cases, the bigotry has been so vile that Twitter or YouTube has kicked off users altogether, like with Milo Yiannopoulos after he led a racist social media campaign against actress Leslie Jones. So the fact that some critics have cited such bans as evidence of anti-conservative bias is telling.
Also telling is the White House guest list—which it hasn’t released, but many of the invitees have bragged about attending on Twitter. A meme maker who goes by Carpe Donktum, who once won an Infowars meme contest, will be there. Radio host Bill Mitchell, who has used his platforms to boost conspiracy theories like QAnon and stir fear against the “deep state,” is going. Representatives from Prager University, which makes viral fringe-right and conservative videos on YouTube for an audience of more than 2.2 million subscribers, are on the guest list. Charlie Kirk, the leader of the conservative student group Turning Point USA, who has used his considerable social media presence to push anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric, is going, as is Ali Alexander, who called for people to buy guns in preparation for a “civil war.” James O’Keefe, the media maker who produces doctored video stings and unsuccessfully tried to dupe the Washington Post over its reporting on Roy Moore, is slated to attend. Members of the Heritage Foundation were also invited, as were Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, among others. One thing all of these characters have in common is their support of Trump and sizable audiences on social media. (As has been widely noted, companies like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were not invited to the event.)
Why is this even happening? After all, Trump can’t really do anything to Twitter if he feels it’s silencing his supporters. Platforms are private companies. The First Amendment bars government censorship. Content moderation by Facebook (which isn’t the same as banning conservative ideas, but rather means Facebook is enforcing its terms of service against hate and misinformation) is legal. Twitter can remove however many followers of Trump it wants—but again, Twitter is only removing accounts that are bots or violate its terms of service. If YouTube wants to downrank pages that peddle racism and false information, it’s well within its rights to do so. One reason the attendees of Trump’s social media summit have been able to gain such substantial followings despite the openly hate-filled rhetoric and misinformation they use their platforms to espouse is that social media platforms are protected by the Communications Decency Act, a law passed in 1996 that grants legal immunity to companies like Facebook and Twitter to protect them from being sued for what their users post. This has allowed YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook to look the other way for years as bigots and fabulists gained tremendous followings. The sites verified white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and racists who were given a platform to broadcast their hate. If conservatives now have a problem with Facebook banning someone like Alex Jones, who used his platform to claim that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax and inspired targeted harassment against the parents of children who lost their lives, it suggests their movement extends into some pretty ugly corners.
If Trump were to take aim at social media sites, he’d be advocating for chiseling away at that immunity from liability, which could open the doors for Facebook and YouTube to be sued for hosting the exact type of content he seeks to promote. That’s not necessarily the worst outcome, but it would result in Facebook having an even heavier hand in its content moderation, which is the opposite of what Trump wants. If rules were created that required some level of responsibility for not allowing misleading information to be broadcast, the very people Trump is inviting to his summit would be hit hardest. If Facebook were broken up as part of an antitrust action, Trump’s platform would get smaller. None of these things is actually beneficial to Trump—but grievance politics are. So he’s using his bully pulpit, generating press about how he’s being wronged by tech elites and creating false enemies of Silicon Valley companies that can’t fire back—because if they do, the cries of partisan bias will only grow louder.
There’s one way in which this is clever. By amplifying the cries of bias, he is helping tie the hands of some of the most powerful companies in the world, making it even harder for them to conduct the kind of community moderation their platforms need. As long as Trump cries censorship, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter will be forced to tiptoe around doing something about the hate that some of the president’s fans want to consume. And Trump will have as clear a runway as he did in 2016 to play his social media game however he likes.