(Bloomberg) — The White House is holding a closed-door social media summit on Thursday that’s short on social media companies and long on fringe conservative voices that back up President Donald Trump’s claims of being silenced online.
While Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. and other internet platforms weren’t invited, several presidential fans, provocateurs, leaders of conservative groups, media figures, and lawmakers have said they’re going — including some who’ve faced allegations of racism and antisemitism, trolling and conspiracy theories.
“The White House will be hosting a very big and very important Social Media Summit today,” Trump said Thursday on Twitter. “Would I have become President without Social Media? Yes (probably)!”
Trump is scheduled to address the gathering, which was billed by the White House as a way to “bring together digital leaders for a robust conversation on the opportunities and challenges of today’s online environment.” But the confirmed attendees are primarily conservative tech critics who echo Trump’s own complaints that social media systematically silences conservative voices.
The president has repeatedly accused large technology platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Alphabet Inc.’s Google of anti-conservative bias, with little evidence. Last month, he said the U.S. government should sue Facebook and Google for unspecified wrongdoing.
In May, the administration posted a form urging people to report potential political censorship by the social media companies, which White House spokesman Judd Deere said on Wednesday got “thousands of responses.” The form is now defunct.
“I don’t think there’s going to be serious policy matters discussed,” said Ethan Porter, a professor at George Washington University who has studied the political role of media in the Trump era. “It looks like a theatrical gathering at the White House — a venting session for conservative media stars,” he said.
The summit is expected to attract figures like Bill Mitchell, a Twitter booster of Trump’s who has promoted the conspiracy theory known as QAnon; as well as the person behind a pro-Trump meme account known as @CarpeDonktum, whose work has attracted retweets from the president.
Brent Bozell, who heads an organization devoted to exposing alleged liberal media bias and once compared President Barack Obama to “a skinny, ghetto crackhead,” was also expected, alongside another Twitter personality who has said the media was pushing a civil war.
The conservative nonprofit Project Veritas, which uses undercover sting operations in attempts to expose wrongdoing, said founder James O’Keefe would be there. Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican and frequent Google critic, is scheduled to attend, as is Republican Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida.
Traditional Washington conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation will be represented. So will a fairly new one, the youth-focused group Turning Point USA, which has been accused of promoting baseless claims against liberals.
While the White House schedule lists the event as closed to the press, Trump has repeatedly opened private meetings in the past.
Ben Garrison, a pro-Trump political cartoonist, tweeted Wednesday that his invitation had been rescinded after criticism that one of his works, which depicted Jewish financiers controlling U.S. foreign policy, was anti-Semitic. Garrison denied the accusation.
Accusing social media companies of shutting out conservative agendas could help Trump maintain ties to allies, some of whom have devoted media followings of their own, Porter said. Trump officially launched his re-election campaign last month, and it reported last week that he and the Republican National Committee had together raised $105 million in the second quarter and had $100 million in available cash.
Nearly 65% of Republicans or those who lean Republican believe big tech companies support liberal views over conservative ones, and a full 85% think it’s at least somewhat likely the companies are intentionally censoring viewpoints, according to a Pew Research Center survey from last year.
“There is a segment of the population that’s motivated to get out to vote based on what they’re against,” said Kevin Madden, a former spokesman for Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign who has also worked with technology companies.
Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association, a trade group that represents large technology companies, said in a statement that his members provide “the best tool for promoting voices from all political perspectives in history,” including conservatives.
“Internet companies are not biased against any political ideology, and conservative voices in particular have used social media to great effect,” Beckerman said.
Pressure on the technology companies is increasing in Washington as Republicans in Congress dig into allegations of conservative bias, Democrats in the House conduct an antitrust inquiry and enforcers at the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission divvy up oversight of Google, Facebook, Apple Inc., and Amazon.com Inc. Politicians from both parties are also exploring limiting liability protections that the companies enjoy for third-party content.
Jesse Blumenthal, who directs tech policy for the network of groups funded by the libertarian Koch brothers, said that those on the right have long feared gatekeepers would keep conservative opinions from out of the public square.
“That is not a new complaint,” said Blumenthal, who advocates for the government to stay out of speech issues. “What is new is, so what do you want the government to do about it?”
The fight to remove the government from regulating speech resulted in the successful push to end the “fairness doctrine” that required television broadcasters give equal amounts of time to candidates seeking public office, Blumenthal said. Trump has mused about bringing the idea back for social media.
(Adds Trump comment on meeting in third paragraph.)
–With assistance from Alyza Sebenius.
To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Brody in Washington at [email protected]
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sara Forden at [email protected], John Harney
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