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White House Hosts ‘Social Media Summit’ for Pro-Trump Digital Warriors White House Hosts Conservative Internet Activists at a Social Media ‘Summit’
(about 5 hours later)
WASHINGTON — The day of a planned White House social media gathering was off to an energetic start on Thursday, when President Trump blasted out a round of Twitter insults against his enemies, defended the Pledge of Allegiance, called himself “great looking and smart” and announced an afternoon Rose Garden news conference on his administration’s battle to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census all before 8 o’clock in the morning. WASHINGTON — As he opened an event that had brought 200 conservative social media firebrands to the White House, President Trump wanted his guests to know just how much he appreciated their work helping shape the online narrative about his presidency and a re-election fight.
“A big subject today at the White House Social Media Summit will be the tremendous dishonesty, bias, discrimination and suppression practiced by certain companies,” Mr. Trump said, referring to platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter. “The Fake News is not as important, or as powerful, as Social Media.” “The crap you think of,” Mr. Trump said as he surveyed his Twitter kingdom, “is unbelievable.”
The morning Twitter messages allowed Mr. Trump to kick off an event that will gather a group of supporters who have grown from fringe lurkers in the internet’s backwaters to significant disrupters largely thanks to Mr. Trump’s attentions and who think they are being discriminated against for their conservative views. The guest list has alarmed critics who fear it is bringing together people who disseminate threats, hate speech and actual fake news, and who sometimes have their messages elevated with the velocity of a presidential tweet. Mr. Trump was once an outsider political candidate who prided himself on bending rules and subverting norms, and he wants to keep that sensibility as a candidate in 2020. So on Thursday, the president went in search of outside-the-box campaign ideas from a group that also has little use for playing by the rules.
At first glance, the guest list sounds like a 4Chan message board come to life. Sandwiched between a flurry of morning presidential tweets and bleeding into Mr. Trump’s early evening news conference on how his administration would collect data on citizenship, the White House Social Media Summit was dominated by activists willing to share unverified smears against Democratic presidential candidates, disseminate QAnon conspiracy theories and create memes the president might share.
[The event illuminates the influence of pro-Trump trolls in the political establishment, our technology columnist writes.] “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,” Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, said in an email explaining the origins of the event. “After receiving thousands of responses, the president wants to engage directly with these digital leaders in a discussion on the power of social media.”
James O’Keefe, who captures secret recordings to embarrass liberals and journalists and who has received donations from the Trump Foundation, will attend. So will Ali Alexander, whose tweet questioning Senator Kamala Harris’s racial background was shared by the president’s eldest son after Ms. Harris, Democrat of California, spoke about race during the first 2020 presidential debate. That’s really not what happened.
And so will a supporter who goes by the moniker “Carpe Donktum.” His credentials include creating a doctored video that appeared to show former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. massaging his own shoulders while addressing accusations that he had inappropriately touched women. That video was shared by the president. Before all was said and done, the East Room event featuring a rambling speech by Mr. Trump on everything from Federal Reserve policy to his hairstyle devolved into a confrontation in the Rose Garden after the presidential news conference between Sebastian Gorka, the former White House official-turned-media-personality, and a journalist as James O’Keefe, an activist who likes to capture videos under false pretenses to embarrass liberals and journalists, filmed the scene.
(Some semblance of crowd control belatedly kicked in: Ben Garrison, a pro-Trump cartoonist, was initially invited but will not be attending after critics accused him of drawing an anti-Semitic cartoon.) “Gorka! Gorka! Gorka!” his supporters chanted as Mr. Gorka called a journalist a “punk.”
Other guests, like Charlie Kirk, the 25-year-old founder of Turning Point USA, a group that reaches out to young conservatives, said he represented a “center right” view, wants the president to explore helping supporters who say their content has been blocked and stripped of potential advertising revenue by social media platforms. Mr. Kirk and members of his organization have been criticized by the Southern Poverty Law Center for tweets that contained anti-immigrant or racist views. Another activist, Joy Villa, twirled in the background in a floor-length red gown emblazoned with the word “freedom.” “Fake news is over!” Ms. Villa shouted amid the melee, before talking about who designed her gown.
“I think it’s a win for this country that the forum is happening,” Mr. Kirk said in an interview. “It definitely is a listening session for the administration to be able to gather facts and data.” Other supporters who had made the journey from the internet’s backwaters to the White House included “Carpe Donktum,” who created a fake video of Joseph R. Biden Jr., the former vice president, which Mr. Trump then shared to his Twitter account. There was also Bill Mitchell, who enjoys discussing QAnon, an online conspiracy theory that purports to share government secrets. And there was Ali Alexander, who shared a tweet questioning Kamala Harris’s racial background.
Mr. Trump is seeking proof that he and his supporters have been marginalized on social media. The president has crusaded for months against what he and his closest advisers believe is a concerted effort to muffle conservative voices. Last August, after the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was largely barred from Facebook, Apple and Google, he ramped up his critiques. Ostensibly, the entire exercise was a chance for Mr. Trump to hear grievances from his supporters. That is what some of them said, anyway. Charlie Kirk, the 25-year-old founder of Turning Point USA, a group that reaches out to young conservatives, said before the event that he was going into it with a “center right” view on how the president should search for evidence that social media platforms were silencing conservative voices. Mr. Kirk and members of his organization have been criticized by the Southern Poverty Law Center for tweets that contained anti-immigrant or racist views.
“Google search results for ‘Trump News’ shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake New Media,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD. Fake CNN is prominent.”
“They are controlling what we can & cannot see,” he added. “This is a very serious situation — will be addressed!”
Those claims mirror efforts by conservatives in Congress who have summoned Twitter, Facebook and Google executives to grill them on how their algorithms could be used to hide deliberate efforts to suppress conservative voices.
Indeed, the event is just as notable because of those who will not be there: Representatives from Facebook did not receive an invitation, according to a spokesman, and representatives from Twitter and Google are not expected to appear.
Most of the activists attending represent — and spend their time transmitting — a larger theory of suppression and bias against conservatives. In May, the White House unveiled a website that asked users to share evidence of discrimination, along with their citizenship status and contact details. That information was used to organize Thursday’s gathering.
“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,” Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, said in an email. “After receiving thousands of responses, the president wants to engage directly with these digital leaders in a discussion on the power of social media.”
Advocacy groups that say their clients have faced discrimination online accused the Trump administration of promoting hate. Madihha Ahussain, a lawyer with Muslim Advocates, a nonprofit legal and advocacy organization, described the gathering as a ruse.
“Enforcing basic standards of decency on social media isn’t censoring conservative speech,” Ms. Ahussain said in a statement. “Hate speech is hate speech, regardless of whether the person spewing it has met with the president.
She added, “We urge social media platforms to ignore the circus at the White House and instead commit to enforcing their hate-content policies objectively and forcefully.”
Mr. Kirk, of Turning Point USA, said the event process reminded him of a listening session Mr. Trump held this year with conservative college students. The result was an executive order meant to protect free speech on college campuses. Mr. Kirk said he did not necessarily expect the same outcome, but believed Mr. Trump might consider his options.
“I think that’s a positive thing that the president is hearing new ideas and entertaining difference of opinion” and seeing if he could use his power to tackle conservatives’ complaints, Mr. Kirk said.“I think that’s a positive thing that the president is hearing new ideas and entertaining difference of opinion” and seeing if he could use his power to tackle conservatives’ complaints, Mr. Kirk said.
Also scheduled to attend is Brad Parscale, the president’s 2020 campaign manager. Mr. Parscale oversaw digital strategy for Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign, which relied heavily on buying ads on Facebook. Since then, Mr. Parscale has been vocal in his criticism of Facebook, Google and Twitter, accusing them of blacklisting conservatives. The president and his supporters feel as though their voices have been silenced by platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Google, while making the somewhat confounding argument that their efforts are indeed covered breathlessly in the news media, but just not to their liking.
“At a time when social media platforms are banning conservative voices and supporters of the president,” Mr. Parscale said in a message on Tuesday, “it’s important for President Trump to emphasize that he appreciates their support and wants to protect their First Amendment rights.” Weeks ago, the president and his social media director, Dan Scavino, hatched the idea to hold the event. The White House created a website that was meant to capture evidence of Google, Twitter and Facebook suppressing conservative voices. In the end, representatives of all three were left off the guest list.
“At a time when social media platforms are banning conservative voices and supporters of the president,” said Brad Parscale, the president’s 2020 campaign manager, “it’s important for President Trump to emphasize that he appreciates their support and wants to protect their First Amendment rights.”
Before the event devolved into a dumpster fire in the Rose Garden, Mr. Trump treated his audience to an unusually detailed look into one of the hallmarks of his presidency — his tweets. He said his tweets were intended to kick-start a new news cycle, and lately he was wondering why he seemed to notice lower engagement numbers. Could something more nefarious be afoot?
“I used to watch it like a rocket ship when I put out a beauty,” Mr. Trump said, waxing poetic about those early days running the Twitter account as president. Recounting a tweet accusing President Barack Obama of wiretapping his office, he said: “Remember I said somebody was spying on me? That was like a rocket.”
Mr. Trump had special praise for his golf-caddie-turned-social-media impresario. Once upon a time, Mr. Trump noticed that Mr. Scavino — “My Dan,” as he called him — loved to stare at his computer screen all day long. These days, he said, Mr. Scavino works directly with many of the president’s digital supporters, who send him content that he then runs by the president in the Oval Office. That summary was pretty much open confirmation of the White House’s slapdash social media system.
“He works about 28 hours a day,” Mr. Trump said, “working with all of you, many of you.”
In between complaining about houseflies — “I hate flies!” — and talking about his hair, Mr. Trump gave his own unique interpretation of the First Amendment.
“To me free speech is not when you see something good and then you purposely write bad,” Mr. Trump said, describing the kind of thing the First Amendment is designed to protect. “To me that’s very dangerous speech, and you become angry at it. But that’s not free speech.”
Not surprisingly, the whole concept of the event alarmed the president’s critics.
Madihha Ahussain, a lawyer with Muslim Advocates, a nonprofit legal and advocacy organization, described it as a ruse.
“Enforcing basic standards of decency on social media isn’t censoring conservative speech,” Ms. Ahussain said in a statement. “Hate speech is hate speech, regardless of whether the person spewing it has met with the president.”
She added, “We urge social media platforms to ignore the circus at the White House and instead commit to enforcing their hate-content policies objectively and forcefully.”
Thomas Melia, the Washington director of the PEN American Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates press freedom and advancement of literature, said that the United States needed “high-level dialogues” about the role of private companies in the practice of content moderation and crafting terms of service policies.
The White House, Mr. Melia said, was not the place for this on Thursday.
“Sadly,” he said, “today’s gathering entirely misses the mark with its highly politicized guest list that excludes important voices and includes conspiracy peddlers and purveyors of false information who might more rightly be viewed as part of the problem.”