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Trump Threatens Social Media Giants at White House Summit for Internet Trolls

July 15, 2019
Trump and fly

“How did a fly get into the White House?”

“I’m very concerned that they affected the outcome of the 2018 election, and if you let them do what they’ve been doing it’s going to affect the outcome of the 2020 election as well.” Harmeet Dhillon, speaking at White House Social Media Summit on July 11.

Exactly one week after hijacking the traditionally non-partisan DC 4th of July celebration, Trump invited about 200 of what the New York Times gingerly called “conservative social media firebrands” to the White House for a “Social Media Summit”, which “was dominated by activists willing to share unverified smears against Democratic presidential candidates, disseminate QAnon conspiracy theories and create memes the president might share.” Trump himself gave the keynote speech (watch it yourself here), whose central message was that he and his supporters were being censored and discriminated against by Twitter, Facebook, and Google and he was going to do something about that.

Yes, that’s right. The president who governs by tweet complained that Twitter is stifling his voice. He then announced that “today I’m directing my administration to explore all regulatory and legislative solutions to protect free speech and free speech rights for all Americans.” I think this story deserves closer attention than it has received from news organizations.

The “summit” served several purposes:

  • It set the internet memes for the upcoming election for the very people who will be propagating them.
  • It officially gave Trump’s blessing to some of the most extreme sources of conspiracy theories and disinformation on the Internet. (For a partial list of who showed up, see here. The White House did not publish a list of attendees.)
  • It put Twitter, Facebook, and Google (none of which were represented at this “Social Media Summit”) on notice that this administration will use the full force of the federal government against them if they try to police right wing content on the Web.
  • It fed the firm belief on the right that they are the persecuted and the real victims of a vast leftist conspiracy led by Democrats and the “fake news” media establishment.

Early in his speech, Trump summoned Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) to the podium so he could spotlight his campaign against the “social media giants who would love to shut us down.” Hawley is sponsoring legislation that focuses on “Section 230”, an amendment to the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that provides a legal shield for internet companies that host user-generated content and without which they could be legally liable for all content they host. Hawley has seized on Section 230 as leverage against Google, Facebook, and Twitter. “They’ve gotten these special deals from government,” Hawley said. “They’re treated unlike anybody else. If they want to keep their special deal, they have to quit discriminating against conservatives.” After Hawley finished his remarks, Trump called his Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act “very important legislation” and added that he didn’t trust the companies to “self-correct”.

Hawley (who defeated Claire McCaskill for the senate in 2018) is about as reactionary as they come (for more on his views, see here), and he is a rising force on the Republican right. His bill may not go anywhere, given Democratic control of the House, but that’s probably not the point, which is to use the “regulatory and legislative solutions” (in Trump’s phrase) of the federal government to intimidate the “social media giants” into relaxing whatever feeble controls they have in place to filter out blatant disinformation and batshit conspiracy theories from their platforms.

There is a strange paranoiac incoherence in TrumpWorld’s argument–a mixture of braggadocio and self-pity–which was on full display in Trump’s rambling and largely stream-of-consciousness speech. On the one hand, Trump bragged about his astonishing success in using social media to deliver his unfiltered message to his followers and its importance in winning the presidency for him. (“I’m hotter now than I have ever been!”) He lauded the brilliance of his senior advisor for digital strategy Dan Scavino’s social media campaign for his re-election.

At the same time, he claims that he and his supporters are victims of on-line censorship and manipulation to prevent their message from getting through. “Censorship like nobody has any understanding, like nobody can believe…” “…horrible bias…” “…They’re playing games…” “…They don’t let them on. They say, sir, I can’t follow you, they make it impossible…”

Then the big one: Trump invited lawyer and former California Republican vice chairwoman Harmeet Dhillon to the podium, where she lambasted the big social media companies and then said this: “I’m very concerned that they affected the outcome of the 2018 election and if you let them do what they’ve been doing it’s going to affect the outcome of the 2020 election as well.” Trump looked on approvingly and then said, “What Harmeet said is so so true!…That’s the collusion! It’s the collusion between the Democrats and the media and social media and these platforms.”

What’s the evidence for all of this? Trump’s tweets don’t “go off like a rocket” the way they used to. According to Trump, Twitter is messing with the numbers, and he doesn’t get as many re-tweets and likes as before. [Let us pause at this point and consider that the President of the United States obsesses over his Twitter following!]

The problem, of course, is that the algorithms and processes used by Twitter, Facebook, and Google to control content and searches are proprietary to those companies and mostly opaque to outside scrutiny. The conspiracy-minded can therefore project onto these black boxes whatever they imagine might be happening inside. And who’s to prove them wrong (and would it matter anyway)? The corollary is that if the social media giants do bow to pressure from Trump, how would the rest of us even know that had happened?

For TrumpWorld, the fact that it is almost entirely the extreme right alleging internet censorship isn’t because their sites were and are purveying falsehoods and disinformation, but rather because they’re being persecuted. The allegations become the evidence. And now the bomb throwers have been explicitly endorsed by the President of the United States, who invites them to the White House and calls them “very special people, brilliant people.” Nothing is too outrageous. “The crap you think of is unbelievable!…Some of you guys are out there, I mean it’s genius, but it’s bad,” said the president in a winking mock reproach.

And Trump gave them the themes to push:

  • Democrats want to impose socialism…no wait, it’s communism. “It’s pure socialism…worse than socialism. There’s a word called communism too…this is beyond socialism.” That’s what the Green New Deal really is. “Our country is going to go one way, or it’s going to head in the direction of Venezuela.”
  • The country is being invaded by dangerous brown people, and the Democrats are encouraging it. “They want open borders, they want people to pour in, including criminals, the worst criminals.” I.e., those Central Americans in those squalid CBP camps and private prisons are criminals and deserve to be locked up and deported along with the ones already here.
  • Russian interference in the last election (“the Russian hoax”) didn’t happen and the investigation was a “witch hunt”. The real collusion is between the Democrats, the “fake news” media, and the social media companies to suppress the truth.

This is dangerous stuff, and its purveyors have been given free rein by the president.

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