Pres­i­dent wel­comes his Web friends, tar­gets tech

Some of Trump’s fiercest back­ers join in al­leg­ing Sil­i­con Valley po­lit­i­cal bias

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY TONY ROMM

Pres­i­dent Trump as­sailed Face­book, Google and Twit­ter on Thurs­day — ac­cus­ing them of ex­hibit­ing “ter­ri­ble bias” and si­lenc­ing his sup­port­ers — at a White House “So­cial Me­dia Sum­mit” that crit­ics chas­tised for giv­ing a prom­i­nent stage to some of the In­ter­net’s most controvers­ial, in­cen­di­ary voices.

For Trump, the con­fer­ence rep­re­sented his high­est-pro­file broad­side against Sil­i­con Valley after months of ac­cu­sa­tions that tech gi­ants cen­sor con­ser­va­tive users and web­sites. With it, the pres­i­dent also ral­lied his widely fol­lowed on­line al­lies — whom he de­scribed as “jour­nal­ists and in­flu­encers” and who to­gether can reach roughly half a bil­lion peo­ple — en­ter­ing the 2020 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

“Some of you are ex­traor­di­nary. The crap you think of is un­be­liev­able,” Trump said.

Trump de­liv­ered his di­a­tribe against Face­book, Google and Twit­ter — charges of po­lit­i­cal bias that all three com­pa­nies long have de­nied — at a White House event fea­tur­ing Repub­li­can law­mak­ers, GOP cam­paign strate­gists and so­cial me­dia mememak­ers, a move that led some crit­ics to ex­press dis­may that the pres­i­dent aimed to use the pol­icy sum­mit as a re­elec­tion push. But Demo­cratic law­mak­ers and watch­dog groups said they were most alarmed that Trump had in­vited sup­port­ers who have a his­tory of tar­get­ing the pres­i­dent’s po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents with in­flam­ma­tory tweets, mis­lead­ing videos and hard-to-de­bunk con­spir­acy the­o­ries. At one point, the pres­i­dent praised James O’Keefe, the founder of Project Ver­i­tas,

has re­leased widely crit­i­cized, highly edited videos of his sub­jects.

“Some­body said he’s controvers­ial,” Trump said. “He’s truth­ful.”

In re­sponse, crit­ics fret­ted that Trump had es­sen­tially en­dorsed such tac­tics in the early days of the 2020 pres­i­den­tial race.

“This has the ap­pear­ance not of a so­cial me­dia sum­mit but a po­lit­i­cal rally and call for the right,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.). “The fact that some of the most extreme voices on so­cial me­dia are com­ing to the White House, and they get a fo­rum to com­plain about how often they’re retweeted, and that the ac­tual plat­form com­pa­nies aren’t even in­vited, smacks of the ab­surd.”

The South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter charged that the pres­i­dent is “es­sen­tially con­duct­ing a hate sum­mit at the White House,” said Heidi Beirich, the di­rec­tor of the group’s work to track on­line ex­trem­ism.

Face­book, Google and Twit­ter each de­clined to com­ment.

For much of the sum­mit, Twit­ter ap­peared to be down, an out­age the com­pany said it was in­ves­ti­gat­ing. Out­side the gath­er­ing, Trump’s aides ap­peared to line the hall­ways with poster boards calling at­ten­tion to the tech in­dus­try’s al­leged tac­tics for sup­press­ing con­ser­va­tives’ speech — along with at least one tweet from Trump calling him­self “the best” at us­ing the ser­vice.

And Trump threat­ened ad­di­tional scru­tiny to come, promis­ing to bring big tech com­pa­nies to Wash­ing­ton for an up­com­ing meet­ing while di­rect­ing fed­eral agen­cies to ex­plore “all reg­u­la­tory and leg­isla­tive solutions to pro­tect free speech.”

Trump has skew­ered Face­book, Google and Twit­ter for months on al­le­ga­tions that they are bi­ased against con­ser­va­tives, even ac­cus­ing them of try­ing to rig the elec­tion. In March, for ex­am­ple, he said the com­pa­nies had en­gaged in “col­lu­sion” and worked in op­po­si­tion to a “cer­tain group of peo­ple that happen to be in power, that happen to have won the elec­tion.” Re­peat­edly, the pres­i­dent also has to in­ves­ti­gate or reg­u­late Face­book, Google and Twit­ter, spark­ing hear­ings and sim­i­lar calls for tough new laws among Repub­li­cans on Capi­tol Hill.

Trump has not pro­vided ev­i­dence for his al­le­ga­tions that the tech com­pa­nies seek to un­der­mine Repub­li­cans or U.S. elec­tions, and some of the ex­am­ples he has cited to il­lus­trate in­dus­try bias have been de­bunked. For ex­am­ple, the pres­i­dent has ac­cused Twit­ter of tam­per­ing with his fol­lower count, a charge he re­peated Thurs­day. The com­pany long has said that users with large fol­low­ings often ex­pe­ri­ence fluc­tu­a­tions as it re­moves spam.

“A lot of bad things are hap­pen­ing,” he said.

Trump’s at­tacks come in re­sponse to ef­forts by Face­book, Google and Twit­ter to re­move hate speech, threats of vi­o­lence and other trou­bling con­tent from their plat­forms. These tech gi­ants have been un­der pres­sure to ad­dress a litany of on­line ills, in­clud­ing the rise of dis­in­for­ma­tion, three years after Rus­sian agents spread false­hoods on so­cial me­dia dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion. But Trump and his close al­lies have de­cried some of so­cial me­dia’s con­tent-mod­er­a­tion poli­cies as cen­sor­ship, putting those com­pa­nies in a po­lit­i­cal bind.

“This is largely, I think, a po­lit­i­cal event,” said Michael Beckerman, the pres­i­dent of the In­ter­net As­so­ci­a­tion, a Wash­ing­ton-based trade group that rep­re­sents Face­book, Google and other tech githreat­ened He said there is “no con­ser­va­tive bias on our plat­forms.”

Some of the con­ser­va­tives that Trump consulted Thurs­day have adopted controvers­ial tac­tics on so­cial me­dia and even have been dis­ci­plined by Face­book, Google or Twit­ter for run­ning afoul of their rules. That in­cludes O’Keefe and Project Ver­i­tas, whose se­cretly recorded video of Google drew Trump’s praise Thurs­day.

“Project Ver­i­tas can be syn­er­gis­tic with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to pull back the cur­tain sur­round­ing Big Tech,” O’Keefe said in a state­ment on­line after re­ceiv­ing the in­vi­ta­tion.

Other at­ten­dees in­cluded Ali Alexan­der, who sent the ini­tial, in­flam­ma­tory tweet ques­tion­ing whether Sen. Ka­mala D. Har­ris (D-Calif.), a Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, is ac­tu­ally an “Amer­i­can black,” and Jim Hoft, the Gate­way Pun­dit founder who has long been faulted for spread­ing con­spir­acy the­o­ries on­line.

“After the 2016 elec­tion Google, Face­book, Twit­ter, Ama­zon (in ad­ver­tis­ing) de­cided the best way to prevent another Trump win was to si­lence con­ser­va­tive voices in Amer­ica,” ac­cord­ing to a state­ment from the Gate­way Pun­dit site. “The tech gi­ants in two years did more to de­stroy Free­dom of Speech than at any other time in US his­tory.”

Ini­tially, the White House had in­vited Ben Gar­ri­son, whose car­toons long have pro­voked the ire of groups in­clud­ing the Anti-Defama­tion League and South­ern Po­vants. erty Law Cen­ter for in­clud­ing hate­ful im­agery, in­clud­ing an­ti­Semitism. But the White House this week ap­peared to re­scind its in­vi­ta­tion, Gar­ri­son tweeted in a state­ment Wed­nes­day, out of concern his pres­ence would be a “me­dia dis­trac­tion from the pres­i­dent’s mes­sage.”

Trump also in­vited law­mak­ers such as Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Sen. Mar­sha Blackburn (RTenn.) who have ac­cused Twit­ter of lim­it­ing the reach of their tweets. They were joined by or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the Me­dia Re­search Cen­ter, a con­ser­va­tive group that has called for the breakup of big tech com­pa­nies, and PragerU, which pro­duces right-leaning videos that it says Google has cen­sored — a mat­ter the two sides are bat­tling in court.

In an early-morn­ing se­ries of tweets, Trump said that the fo­cus of the con­ver­sa­tion would be “the tremen­dous dis­hon­esty, bias, dis­crim­i­na­tion and sup­pres­sion prac­ticed by cer­tain com­pa­nies,” though he did not men­tion any by name. “We will not let them get away with it much longer,” he added.

Trump also ap­peared to sug­gest so­cial me­dia sites “would be driven out of busi­ness” once he leaves of­fice in six years — or more, ac­knowl­edg­ing he had made a joke about ex­ceed­ing pres­i­den­tial term lim­its.

Some law­mak­ers bris­tled at the sum­mit, say­ing that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion had missed an op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore real chal­lenges fac­ing so­cial me­dia ahead of the 2020 elec­tion, amid height­ened fears about the spread of hate speech and even harder-to-de­tect vi­ral false­hoods.

“It’s not sur­pris­ing that one of the loud­est dis­sem­i­na­tors of mis­in­for­ma­tion is invit­ing known ex­trem­ists and con­spir­acy the­ory ped­dlers to the White House so­cial me­dia sum­mit,” tweeted Rep. Frank Pal­lone Jr. (D-N.J.), who leads the House’s top tech com­mit­tee. “It’s a shame Pres­i­dent Trump would pre­fer to fan the same fires of on­line so­cial dis­cord that Rus­sia sparked in the 2016 elec­tion rather than bring real ex­perts to­gether to ad­dress the is­sue of con­tent mod­er­a­tion in a thought­ful and ra­tio­nal man­ner.”

JABIN BOTS­FORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Pres­i­dent Trump at his “So­cial Me­dia Sum­mit” at the White House on Thurs­day. “Some of you are ex­traor­di­nary,” Trump told at­ten­dees, which in­cluded con­ser­va­tives who have adopted controvers­ial tac­tics on so­cial me­dia. “The crap you think of is un­be­liev­able.”

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