President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday morning that his administration would review whether Google has committed “treason” after seeing a Fox & Friends news brief in which one of his biggest Silicon Valley supporters floated that baseless claim.
Trump was responding to a Fox & Friends segment from earlier Tuesday morning, as he indicated by tagging the show’s Twitter handle and using quotes from its programming. An hour earlier, Fox news reader Jillian Mele began a news brief, “Billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel believes China should be investigated for treason.” As she spoke, Fox’s chyron read, “Thiel accuses Google of working with Chinese Govt.”
Trump regularly watches Fox News programs like Fox & Friends (often on delay using his “Super Tivo”) and tweets about segments that catch his attention. This creates a feedback loop between the president and his most avid propagandists which can swing both the national news cycle and federal policy.
Fox segments spur some of the president’s most inflammatory comments -- this morning’s tweet marks at least the fourth time the president has responded to the network’s coverage by promoting a treason charge against his perceived enemies.
In this case, Trump was picking up on an accusation from Thiel, a wealthy tech investor and major Trump donor who spoke at the 2016 Republican convention. In a speech on Sunday, Thiel said that Google’s decision to work with the Chinese government to produce a censored version of its search while letting a Pentagon contract lapse was “seemingly treasonous,” and he suggested without evidence that Google’s executive corps had been “infiltrated” by foreign intelligence services. “These questions need to be asked by the FBI and the CIA,” he added. (Thiel sits on the board of Facebook, a Google competitor.)
The Pentagon has previously alleged that Google’s work in China provides a “direct benefit to the Chinese military,” and Trump has echoed the point. The tech company responded that it is not working with the Chinese military.
Thiel returned to the subject during a Monday night appearance on Fox News host and sometime Trump adviser Tucker Carlson’s show, floating what he described as “a few different possibilities” while offering no evidence for his claim of Chinese infiltration of and treason by Google.
“If [Google CEO] Sundar Pinchai was sitting right here, what would you say to him?” Carlson asked at one point.
“Well, I would say, answer my three questions,” Thiel replied. “How many foreign intelligence agencies have infiltrated Google? Have the Chinese in particular infiltrated? And why are you working with Communist China and not the U.S.? What is the reason you're doing that?”
“The questions you raise, and this is not in any way to minimize their importance, are kind of obvious questions,” Carlson replied. “Why hasn't the U.S. government ascertained the answers?”
“It's possible that there are people in the U.S. government looking into it and they haven't told us, but yeah, I think the FBI and CIA would be the natural places to look into it,” Thiel said.
Mele aired a clip from that interview during her news brief the following morning.
Fox’s credulous coverage of Thiel’s speculation -- and Trump’s parroting of those claims -- is no surprise. Right-wing activists and journalists have treated tech companies as an emerging enemy force in recent years. By inflating claims of purported bias against conservatives on social media platforms, they sought to redeploy ref-working tactics previously used against news media outlets.
Fueled by Fox, Trump has adopted this campaign as his own. Last year, Trump claimed Google’s search engine was “suppressing voices of Conservatives” and promised to act against it, apparently in response to a conspiracy-minded segment he saw on Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs Tonight.
Last week, Trump took that accusation from Twitter to the White House Rose Garden. “We had a terrible bias,” Trump said at Thursday’s “Presidential Social Media Summit,” an event that sought to mainstream previously fringe pro-Trump figures. “We have censorship like nobody has any understanding or nobody can believe.”