President Donald Trump told loyal social media personalities and lawmakers at a White House summit Thursday that he intends to push government action against Silicon Valley, as he railed against tech companies over allegations of anti-conservative bias.
“Today I’m directing my administration to explore all regulatory and legislative solutions to protect free speech and the free speech rights of all Americans,” Trump said in a seemingly extemporaneous speech in the East Room of the White House.
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Attendee Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a longtime Trump ally, promised to lead a similar exploration in the Senate during a question-and-answer session with the president following the public portion of the summit, a person who attended that closed-door session told POLITICO. Blackburn said the Senate Judiciary Committee will convene a task force with her at the helm to probe the power of tech titans, according to the person. A Blackburn spokesperson confirmed that she’s leading the inquiry.
Trump in his speech didn’t endorse any specific measures, though he applauded attendee Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) for working on “some very important legislation.” Hawley has proposed depriving large internet companies of legal immunity for user-generated content if they can’t prove they’re politically neutral — a move that would deal a serious blow to the business models of platforms like Facebook and Google.
Trump’s call to action and his praise for Hawley appeared to suggest common ground with lawmakers who, like the Missouri Republican, have called into question online platforms’ liability shield, codified in Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Hawley’s focus on political neutrality has proven controversial even among Republicans, but growing skepticism of tech’s blanket immunity crosses party lines, with Democrats focused on tech’s failures to curb hate speech and misinformation.
“230 is a gift to them,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the tech site Recode this spring, adding that “it is not out of the question that that could be removed.”
It’s still unclear whether the two parties could find common ground on any tech initiative of the sort Trump wants his administration to explore. His remarks on tech Thursday focused entirely on allegations of anti-conservative bias, most of them made personal through a focus on Trump’s own social media accounts.
“We have terrible bias. We have censorship like no one has any understanding, nobody can believe,” he said. “They’re playing with a lot of minds and they’re playing unfairly.”
He repeatedly revisited the issue, largely tying it to unsubstantiated claims that Twitter makes it impossible for people to follow him. “I know that I’ve been blocked,” the president said, insisting that he’d have millions more Twitter followers than his current 61.9 million if Twitter wasn’t preventing people from following his account. He also alleged that the number of “likes” on his tweets fluctuates suspiciously.
Trump also pledged to hold “a big meeting of the companies in a week or two” as a follow-up. No social media platforms were invited to Thursday’s summit. Facebook, Twitter and Google declined to comment on the summit.
Trump’s remarks came in a meandering speech in which he talked up a wide range of issues, including the benefit of low interest rates, strong employment numbers, proof that his hair is real, the physical weakness of antifa members and ratings for “The Apprentice” when he hosted the NBC show, compared with when Arnold Schwarzenegger hosted it.
Claims of anti-conservative bias proved the prevailing theme, however, and Trump punctuated his remarks by hugging social media personalities and Trump backers Diamond and Silk and singling out for praise James O’Keefe, whose undercover sting outfit Project Veritas has released what critics say are selectively edited videos depicting organizations ranging from Google to Planned Parenthood as biased and corrupt.
“He’s not controversial; he’s truthful,” Trump said of O’Keefe.
Trump also called up guests including Hawley, who took the opportunity to boost hisliability legislation.
“Google, Facebook, Twitter, they’ve gotten these special deals from government. They’ve gotten a special giveaway from government. They’re treated unlike anybody else,” Hawley said. “If they want to keep their special deal here’s the bargain. They have to quit discriminating against conservatives.”
The companies deny any political favoritism, and Republicans have not offered evidence of systemic discrimination against conservatives.
Other attendees included House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Reps. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who have all hammered tech companies over the bias issue.
A number of right-wing online personalities and pro-Trump activists were also in attendance, including some who have made racially divisive remarks or promoted conspiracy theories. The cast of expected attendees has brought condemnation from critics such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, which said the administration is “essentially conducting a hate summit at the White House.”
The event was widely panned by Democratic lawmakers, who have long brushed off conservative allegations of Silicon Valley bias as baseless and politically motivated.
“Instead of combatting Russian social media misinformation, punishing anti-competitive practices, or protecting Americans’ data and privacy, the President has invited trolls, conspiracy theorists, anti-Semites, and the whole comments section to the White House,” tweeted Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia. “Give me a break.”
Rep. David Cicilline (R.I.), who is spearheading an investigation into possible anticompetitive behavior in the tech sector, said in a statement that he’s “never seen evidence of tech firm bias against conservatives.”
He continued, “If someone wants to show me some empirical data, instead of some alt-right member’s paranoid claims, I’d appreciate it. In the meantime, it would be great if President Trump would get serious about antitrust.”
The event also drew concern from the right-leaning e-commerce trade group NetChoice, which represents industry heavyweights like Facebook, Google and Twitter. Vice President Carl Szabo told POLITICO he hopes the investigation Trump has demanded will debunk the bias accusations and convince the president that “government regulation is not the right response.”
“Handing regulation of social media to the government sets a dangerous precedent and is ripe for exploitation and abuse by the government,” Szabo said.
Even before the summit started, it appeared to sow some discord among certain far-right provocateurs who had been banned on social media platforms for spreading hoaxes or inciting violence and then were not invited to the White House. They included InfoWars founder Alex Jones, right-wing activist Laura Loomer, conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulos and Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes.
The result was that some of Trump’s loudest and most controversial allies weresuddenly targeting their ire at the White House.
“I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t hurtful,” Loomer, who has criticized Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) for being Muslim, wrote on the messaging service Telegram. “I’ve given up everything to support President Trump and the fight for free speech yet it’s almost like I don’t exist.”
“I believe we all deserve an answer as to why every banned person was kept out of the summit,” Loomer posted on Telegram later. “I’m not mad at anyone. I still love President Trump. But this question needs to be addressed.”
The social network Gab, which has taken in voices banned on other networks, was incredulous that the attendees did not include “those who have sacrificed everything for the uniquely American principle of freedom of expression and individual liberty on the internet.”
“It seems instead that the White House has invited ‘safe’ z-list MAGA celebrities and cheerleaders, the great majority of which have never experienced online censorship or no-platforming at any level,” the company posted on its Twitter feed.
Political cartoonist Ben Garrison had his invitation to the summit rescinded after the White House was peppered with questions about one of his cartoons, which critics said played into longstanding anti-Semitic tropes about Jews controlling the government. Garrison wrote in an online missive that he was “disappointed” but blames the media, not the White House, for the decision. “I will continue to support our President,” he concluded.