“Would I have become President without Social Media?” President Trump tweeted Thursday. “Yes! (probably),” he wrote, as part of a message reminding his followers that the White House was hosting a “very big and very important Social Media Summit” that day.
Big and important it might have been to Trump, but not big enough to include representatives from the technology companies that created these platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, or Google. Instead, attendees included people like pro-Trump meme creator “Carpe Donktum” and Q-Anon true believer Bill Mitchell, as well as anti-Facebook stalwarts “Diamond and Silk” (Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson), whom Trump warmly embraced in the East Room of the White House. At least Trump didn’t include more extreme tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones or Laura Loomer, both of whom have been banned from Twitter and Facebook. As one administration official told The Daily Beast, “Why on earth would we do that? We aren’t that stupid. Come on.”
They might not be that stupid, but the administration passed up an opportunity to have a serious discussion about the impact of social media on politics in favor of a pseudo-therapy session among aggrieved online right-wingers.
According to multiple news reports, attendees did not receive an agenda in advance, and the White House declined to release the names of those it invited in advance. A Trump spokesperson told Fast Company, “the President wants to engage directly with these digital leaders in a discussion on the power of social media.” (In a coincidence that will no doubt provide fodder to the conspiracy theorists who attended the meeting, Twitter crashed just before the summit was scheduled to begin.)
In a series of tweets Thursday morning, Trump offered a preview of the meeting, noting, “A big subject today at the White House Social Media Summit will be the tremendous dishonesty, bias, discrimination and suppression practiced by certain companies. We will not let them get away with it much longer. The Fake News Media will also be there, but for a limited period.” (He also reminded his followers that he is “great looking and smart”).
Attendees were greeted by posters with definitions of words like shadowbanning and de-platforming, and Trump built on the theme of bias in his remarks, which played directly to his crowd’s—and his own—paranoia about social media. As CNN’s Holmes Lybrand noted, the president claimed without evidence that social media companies were preventing him from gaining followers and, in vague, conspiratorial fashion, said that “a lot of bad things are happening.”
The live feed of the meeting was cut short when former White House aide Sebastian Gorka tried to ask the president a question; later, Gorka and Playboy’s White House reporter Brian Karem had a belligerent exchange in the Rose Garden, demonstrating what happens when Twitter-style combativeness plays out in real-world circumstances (in this case, Secret Service officers had to intervene to stop the attempted display of machismo by Gorka and Karem).
Grown men behaving like toddlers is an unusual sight on the White House lawn, but it’s an everyday occurrence on Twitter. It usually leads one person to block the other. And yet, blocking others on Twitter didn’t come up during the social media summit, despite the fact that the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled this week that because the president can’t block users from reading his tweets conducts government business via Twitter.
As one of the judges wrote, “This debate, as uncomfortable and as unpleasant as it frequently may be, is nonetheless a good thing. In resolving this appeal, we remind the litigants and the public that if the First Amendment means anything, it means that the best response to disfavored speech on matters of public concern is more speech, not less.” (A similar lawsuit has been filed against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for also blocking followers from reading her Tweets).
Instead, the summit focused on supposed bias against conservatives on the platform, a subject that many Republicans incorrectly seem to believe is the greatest threat to democratic discourse these days. Next week, Sen. Ted Cruz will convene a Senate panel on “Google and Censorship through Search Engines,” for example, and Trump praised Sen. Josh Hawley’s proposed legislation targeting technology companies for political bias.
Yes, Silicon Valley leans left; at times way left, as its coziness with the Obama administration demonstrated. And as the James Damore case revealed, companies such as Google and Facebook have corporate cultures that foster political echo chambers among their employees.
But if conservative voices on social media are being actively silenced, as Trump claims, what explains their far greater impact on setting the tone for the country’s current political debate? A recent report by Axios, which examined stories about the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders on social media, found that “many of the most viral pieces are actually being published by conservative media.” In fact, “most of the stories about the candidates leading our tracker that generated the most interactions on Twitter (retweets and likes) and Facebook (reactions, comments, and shares) came from conservative sites.” This hardly suggests an organized campaign by Silicon Valley social media companies to silence conservatives.
If Trump’s social media summit is any guide, this White House is more invested in congratulating meme-generators and hugging conspiracy theorists than it is interested in tackling the serious issues social media poses to our politics.
If the Republicans follow Trump’s lead, then expect more conspiracy theories and more politicians like this guy. We can also expect less rigorous research about social media’s effects, fewer solutions for preventing foreign governments from manipulating social media users to impact elections, and little serious engagement with the many other issues at the intersection of politics and Big Tech that threaten the health of our democracy.