July 12, 2019
Ears must have been “ringing” at Facebook, Google, Instagram, and Twitter on July 11—since the big tech companies, likely, dominated the discourse at the Social Media Summit at the White House scheduled for that date.
While the big four were not invited to the confab, The Wall Street Journal reported that the event would offer a platform for supporters of the Trump administration, who claim they face censorship from the left-tilting social media companies—as well as a preview of a likely theme in the president’s re-election campaign.
Attendees include the Claremont Institute think tank; the right-wing media company PragerU; and the Media Research Center, a nonprofit “media watchdog” committed to “neutralizing left wing bias.” Also expected to attend are more familiar Washington conservatives, including the Heritage Foundation, the news outlet said.
The companies declined to comment on the event, but have said in the past that they seek to police harmful or fake content without regard to politics.
“It’s all about 2020,” Paul Gallant, managing director of Cowen Washington Research Group for Technology, Media & Telecom, told the Journal. He sees it as a stage for the president to tell “the base that the media and Internet companies are against us” as well as “pressuring Facebook, Twitter, and Google to tilt content in Trump’s direction.”
The event grew out of complaints the White House has received about bias online, a spokesman said.
“Earlier this year the White House launched a tool to allow Americans, regardless of their political views, to share how they have been affected by bias online,” said White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere. “After receiving thousands of responses, the President wants to engage directly with these digital leaders in a discussion on the power of social media.”
In May, the White House briefly opened an official website for the public to share information about “action against your account” by social-media platforms. Last month it described Thursday’s event as “a robust conversation on the opportunities and challenges of today’s online environment.”
Charlie Kirk, who leads the student group Turning Point USA, said in an interview with the financial news outlet that alleged bias by social-media companies resonates with the president’s supporters, calling it “one of the top, if not the top issue with people [who] I interact with on social media.”
Bill Mitchell, chief executive of YourVoice made his first official White House visit at the event. Like others invitees, he told the Journal that he has seen anecdotal evidence that his pro-Trump videos and tweets should be reaching a larger audience. “We just want a level playing field so that everybody can have free speech,” he said.
But despite their enthusiasm for the cause, neither the attendees nor the president will be able to effectively muzzle the big tech companies, experts think.
Trump “can’t do much” to change the way social-media platforms operate, said Sam McGowan, an analyst at Beacon Policy Advisers, a research firm based in Washington, D.C. “What he can do is hold these sorts of summits. …That in itself is a way to rally Trump’s base.”
The limited ability of President Trump to change the way social-media works was reinforced Monday when a federal appeals court ruled that his practice of blocking some users on Twitter violates the free-speech protections of the First Amendment.
Short of tangible action, calls to rein in tech firms could be a political winner on the campaign trail. In a March Wall Street Journal/NBC survey of 1,000 American adults, 54% said they weren’t satisfied with federal government regulation and oversight of social-media companies, compared with 36% who were satisfied and 10% who weren’t sure.
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