Trump speaks to the media as he walks to Marine One prior to departing from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC [File: Saul Loeb/AFP]
Critics on Thursday slammed US President Donald Trump‘s “social media summit” that includes several far-right and other conservative figures, but not major social media companies, including Google, Twitter and Facebook.
“The Trump administration’s social media summit is a gathering of groups and individuals who have no business at the White House,” said Heidi Beirich, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based watchdog.
Although the White House has not released the official list of participants, some prominent social media personalities have boasted about their invitations online.
This includes Bill Mitchell, who has promoted the QAnon conspiracy theories on Twitter and spread false accusations against Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.
Ali Alexander, an activist, also said he is attending. Alexander tweeted during the Democratic presidential debate earlier this month that candidate and Senator Kamala Harris was “not an American black”. That tweet was then retweeted by Donald Trump Jr, who later deleted the retweet. Harris experienced a slew of racists comments following the tweets.
Tim Pool, a YouTube video journalist, said in a video he was also invited. Pool has amplified claims that conservative media endure persecution and bias at the hands of tech companies.
Also reportedly attending are James O’Keefe, who founded Project Veritas, a far-right organisation known for crossing the ethical line while doing undercover work, and Benny Johnson, who was fired from Buzzfeed for plagiarism.
Johnson is now part of Turning Point USA, a right-wing student group. Turning Point USA’s founder Charlie Kirk also said he was attending.
Among the other conservative organisations expected to participate were PragerU, short for Prager University, which puts out short videos with a conservative perspective on politics and economics and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think-tank.
For years we’ve watched social media serve as a gateway to radicalisation and, far too often, real-life violence. Bringing these groups together is beyond irresponsible; it is essentially conducting a hate summit at the White House.
Invitees said they had received little information about the event but in a statement to Reuters News Agency, the White House positioned it as a follow-up to an online survey launched by the administration in May for people to report “suspected political bias” on social media.
“After receiving thousands of responses, the president wants to engage directly with these digital leaders in a discussion on the power of social media,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere.
The SPLC’s Beirich said calling such individuals “digital leaders” only “legitimises the hateful rhetoric they spread online”.
“For years we’ve watched social media serve as a gateway to radicalisation and, far too often, real-life violence. Bringing these groups together is beyond irresponsible; it is essentially conducting a hate summit at the White House,” Beirich said in a statement.
Democratic Senator Mark Warner was quoted by the Washington Post as saying, that the summit “has the appearance not of a social media summit but a political rally and call for the right”.
Major companies not invited
In advance of Thursday’s summit, Trump lashed out at social media companies on Twitter.
The president has claimed, without evidence, that the companies are “against me” and even suggested US regulators should sue them on grounds of anti-conservative bias.
A “big subject” of the summit would be “the tremendous dishonesty, bias, discrimination and suppression practised by certain companies,” Trump said in his tweets on Thursday.
“We will not let them get away with it much longer,” he said.
Representatives for Facebook, Google and Twitter have declined to comment specifically on the White House meeting. The Internet Association, the industry’s major trade group representing Facebook, Google and dozens of other companies, said online platforms “are the best tool for promoting voices from all political perspectives in history.”
“Internet companies are not biased against any political ideology, and conservative voices in particular have used social media to great effect,” the group’s president Michael Beckerman said in a statement Thursday. “Internet companies depend upon their users’ trust from across the political spectrum to grow and succeed.”
Facebook has banned far-right figures such as Alex Jones of Infowars and Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. Twitter has banned hate speech on the basis of someone’s race, gender and other categories. Twitter broadened its policy this week to include banning language that dehumanises others based on religion, and the company said it may also ban similar language aimed at other groups, such as those defined by gender, race and sexual orientation.
“I’ve never seen evidence of tech firm bias against conservatives,” said Democratic Representative David Cicilline, who has been sharply critical of the big companies for reasons stemming from their market dominance and effect on competition. He leads a House Judiciary subcommittee that has opened a bipartisan probe into the tech giants’ market conduct.
“If someone wants to show me some empirical data, instead of some alt-right member’s paranoid claims, I’d appreciate it,” Cicilline said in a statement on Wednesday.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said private companies should be allowed to remove “vicious, racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic hate speech”.
“But this president, amazingly, seems to believe that when offensive language is coming from a right-wing source, and it’s taken off the social media site, that’s censorship,” he said.
Trump has around 61 million followers on Twitter and uses the platform almost daily to speak directly to his followers. At the same time, Trump has accused Twitter, without evidence, of making it “very hard for people to join me” and “very much harder for me to get out the message.”