Trump social media censorship image
Ceci Freed / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Timeline: How baseless right-wing claims about tech bias led to Trump drafting an executive order

President Donald Trump is reportedly planning to move forward with an executive order compelling the Federal Communications Commission to regulate how social media sites Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube moderate the content that users put on their platforms. As CNN reported, with this order, the Trump administration is seeking to combat “alleged but unproven systemic bias against conservatives by technology platforms.” 

The order is just the next step in the yearslong self-victimizing crusade in which Trump, his campaign, right-wing media figures, and Republican lawmakers have been pushing baseless claims of tech censorship to “work the refs.” And while hard evidence of actual bias against conservatives has still not been presented (even Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas acknowledged it is anecdotal), tech companies have nevertheless shown a pattern of caving to the pressure in efforts to appease conservatives.

Here is a roundup of the major moments that got us here.

  • 2016

  • April 2016: Trump campaign’s Brad Parscale repeatedly brags about access to tech platform executives. On April 20, 2016, Parscale -- then digital director for the Trump presidential campaign and co-founder of the digital marketing firm Giles-Parscale -- tweeted that he had “spent the day with the Google politics team. I love the insight and access GP now has. Tomorrow Twitter, next week Facebook.” The following day he tweeted that he was “having dinner with Twitter talking about Twitter.” [Twitter, 4/20/16, 4/21/16]

  • May 18, 2016: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg appeases conservatives by meeting with a Trump campaign representative. Zuckerberg and Facebook’s other top executives met with a Trump campaign representative, right-wing politicians, and conservative media pundits to defuse right-wing backlash following a Gizmodo report that claimed “news curators” had conspired to suppress conservative news from the platform’s trending topics section. [The New York Times, 5/19/16

  • September 26, 2016: Trump surrogate Charlie Kirk pushes baseless claims of censorship. Kirk, executive director of the pro-Trump Turning Point USA, tweeted, “Conservatives are targeted, blocked, and silenced on social media. The left runs social networks with a political, leftist, agenda.” [Twitter, 9/22/16]

  • October 30, 2016: Then-candidate Trump baselessly accuses tech platforms of giving his opponent preferential treatment. [Twitter, 10/30/16]

  • November 13, 2016: Parscale pivots toward attacking Twitter, claiming the platform “restricted” the Trump campaign. Shortly after the presidential election, Parscale wrote that Twitter “clearly has problems. Twitter restricted us during campaign. Now they let @MELANIATRUMP be openly attacked. #DishonestTwitter.” He also claimed that “Twitter changed rules to block us from doing things” and that the platform “restricted the use of their advertising tools that would negatively affect” Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. [Twitter, 11/13/16, 11/13/16, 11/13/16]

  • December 2016: Parscale declares that Facebook was fair to the Trump campaign. Parscale tweeted that out “of all platforms,” Facebook “was the most fair” to Trump and provided “the best” return on investment. [Twitter, 12/3/16]

  • 2017

  • August 2017: Right-wing media and far-right figures seize on Google's firing of James Damore for his claim that men are “biologically” better suited than women to climb the corporate ladder. Far-right media figures lashed out at Google after the company fired Damore. Damore had argued that there are biological differences at play behind gender gaps within the tech industry in an internal memo criticizing the company’s diversity initiatives. While the firing was based on Damore’s sexist claims -- which violated Google's code of conduct -- far-right media figures latched onto his argument that Google does not entertain conservative viewpoints and used it to validate a broader narrative about supposed tech censorship. [Media Matters, 8/8/17]

  • 2018

  • March 1, 2018: Trump taps Parscale as his 2020 campaign manager. During Trump’s 2016 campaign, Parscale worked alongside Cambridge Analytica to exploit Facebook’s ad platform to help propel Trump to victory. He has also been vocal in exploiting bogus right-wing cries of bias and has called on Facebook and Twitter not to censor conservative content even though social media companies aren’t actually engaged in such practices. [CNN, 3/1/18; Media Matters, 7/5/18; NBC News, 4/15/18

  • March 7, 2018: Parscale turns on the three big tech platforms in the runup to the midterm elections. Parscale tweeted: “Hey @facebook @Twitter @Google we are watching. ... This is your opportunity to make sure the playing field is level. #MAGA” [Twitter, 3/7/18]

  • April 26, 2018: A GOP-chaired U.S. House Judiciary Committee puts together a hearing titled “Filtering Practices of Social Media Platforms.” The Republican Party used the legislative hearing to give online MAGA personalities a platform to make their baseless claims of censorship, with YouTubers Diamond and Silk as protagonists. [U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, 4/26/18; Media Matters, 4/27/18]

  • May 2018: Facebook appoints anti-Muslim former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) to lead a “liberal bias audit.” Facebook caved to right-wing pressure and agreed to undergo an audit to assess whether its algorithms and policies carry bias against conservatives, tapping Kyl to lead it. [Vice, 5/4/18]

  • May 17, 2018: Parscale and GOP officials pen open letter to Facebook and Twitter CEOs declaring they needed to “stop the bias” against conservatives. Parscale and Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, penned a letter to Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in which they elevated unproven claims of platform bias against conservatives and demanded a response from the platforms by June 18, 2018. [Twitter, 5/24/18]

  • May 24, 2018: Parscale and RNC chair go on Fox to make debunked claims about conservative censorship on social media. Parscale and McDaniel appeared on Fox News’ Fox & Friends to advance bogus claims of platform bias against conservatives. [Media Matters, 5/24/18]

  • June 15, 2018: Facebook caves to pressure and its executives meet with Parscale and top GOP election officials about alleged “bias” against conservatives. Axios reported that “following complaints about censorship of conservatives,” four Facebook executives met with Parscale, McDaniel, and then-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to discuss their complaints. [Axios, 6/15/18]

  • July 17, 2018: GOP-chaired U.S. House Judiciary Committee hosts another hearing focused on alleged bias. During the hearing, titled “Facebook, Google and Twitter: Examining the Content Filtering Practices of Social Media Giants,” tech platform representatives repeatedly denied Republican lawmakers’ accusations of bias against conservatives. [U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, 7/17/18; The Washington Post, 7/17/18]

  • July 26, 2018: Trump accuses Twitter of “shadow banning” prominent conservatives. Trump tweeted: “Twitter ‘SHADOW BANNING’ prominent Republicans. Not good. We will look into this discriminatory and illegal practice at once! Many complaints.” [Twitter, 7/26/18]

  • August 18, 2018: On Twitter, Trump ramps up the rhetoric about bogus censorship. In a tweetstorm, Trump claimed that platforms were “totally discriminating against Republican/Conservative voices” and called for social media sites to “let everybody participate, good & bad.” [Twitter, 8/18/18, 8/18/18]

  • December 11, 2018: Google CEO Sundar Pichai faces House Judiciary Committee. Pichai testified at the request of Republican legislators in a hearing titled “Transparency & Accountability: Examining Google and its Data Collection, Use, and Filtering Practices.” Much of the questioning focused on alleged anti-conservative bias. [U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, 12/11/18; Media Matters, 12/13/18]

  • December 18, 2018: Trump baselessly claims Twitter made his account was being made harder to follow. [Twitter, 12/18/18]

  • 2019

  • January 8, 2019: Report reveals that Facebook and Twitter take advice from extremist right-wing figures on matters of political speech. The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook sought out advice from right-wing extremist Tony Perkins, president of the virulently anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council, while Twitter’s Dorsey approached far-right figure Ali Akbar as he tried to decide whether conspiracy theorist Alex Jones should remain on the platform. [Media Matters, 1/9/19]

  • March 27, 2019: Google’s Pichai visits the White House to meet with Trump. Trump tweeted that the meeting had included discussion about “political fairness.” [The Verge, 3/27/19; Twitter, 5/27/19]

  • April 10, 2019: Senate Judiciary subcommittee hosts a hearing that amplifies debunked claims of censorship from anti-abortion movie makers. The hearing, titled “Stifling Free Speech: Technological Censorship and the Public Discourse,” allowed the GOP to give a platform to anti-abortion media figures, who criticized a ban-evasion feature that negatively impacted the Twitter account for an anti-abortion movie, saying it constituted censorship. During the hearing, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) explained that there was no hard data to support claims of censorship. [U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution, 4/10/19; Media Matters, 4/11/19, 4/10/19]

  • April 23, 2019: Dorsey meets with Trump. Earlier in the day, “Trump accused Twitter of playing ‘political games’ and tampering with his nearly 60 million followers.” [The Washington Post, 4/23/19; Twitter, 4/23/19]

  • May 3, 2019: Trump goes to bat for far-right figures removed from platforms due to violations of hate speech policies. Trump tweeted, “So surprised to see Conservative thinkers like James Woods banned from Twitter, and Paul Watson banned from Facebook!” Woods, however, had merely been suspended for violating rules and chose to leave Twitter in protest, while Watson was banned from Facebook and Instagram for his extremist content. [Twitter, 5/3/19, 5/3/19; Fox News, 5/10/19; Media Matters, 5/2/19]

  • July 11, 2019: White House hosts “social media summit.” Guests in attendance were right-wing social media figures who have strongly pushed the baseless narrative of anti-conservative tech bias, despite their own history of success on the platforms. [Media Matters, 7/10/19]

  • July 16, 2019: Senate Judiciary Committee hosts new hearing focused on censorship. During the hearing titled “Google and Censorship through Search Engines,” Hirono again debunked claims of anti-conservative tech bias. [U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution, 7/16/19; Media Matters, 7/16/19]