President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused tech companies and social media platforms of censorship and bias against conservatives, taking the age-old approach of “working the refs” to a new level. And on Thursday, July 11, the White House will play host to a number of right-wing figures and conservative groups at a “social media summit” featuring what White House spokesperson Judd Deere says will be “a robust conversation on the opportunities and challenges of today’s online environment.”
Right-wing media really started amping up complaints at social media companies following the publication of a thinly-sourced 2016 Gizmodo story accusing Facebook of suppressing right-wing news. Two curators made the accusation, but others could not corroborate those claimed. Shortly thereafter, Facebook replaced its editors with an algorithm and things snowballed from there. In the past few years we've seen repeated false allegations, and numerous attempts at victimhood. At one point, Republicans even called current Fox Nation hosts Diamond and Silk to testify before Congress.
Trump has long accused the press of having an anti-conservative bias, but it wasn’t until a July 2018 Vice story accused Twitter of “shadow banning” conservatives based on a misinterpretation of the actual term that he expanded his victimization narrative to include tech companies. Since then, he’s written well over a dozen tweets about supposed anti-conservative bias from tech platforms, and Trump said last month that companies like Google and Twitter “should be sued because what's happening with the bias.” In May, his administration launched a “Tech Bias Story Sharing Tool” that asked followers to share stories of supposed censorship (while also collecting email addresses, ZIP codes, and phone numbers of participants). Thursday’s summit is, according to Deere, a direct response to the tool.
Trump’s social media summit is shaping up to be a stunt for right-wing commentators and memesmiths to continue working the refs by pushing the bogus “bias” narrative.
Trump’s White House extended invitations to the summit to a number of like-minded right-wing figures and organizations, some of which have pushed the baseless tech bias narrative in statements that do not stand up to scrutiny.
Human Events publisher Will Chamberlain has argued that access to social media platforms is a civil right, going so far as to compare struggles faced by conservatives who violate agreed-upon social media policies to those experienced by Black people in the 1950s United States. While Chamberlain concedes that the law doesn’t currently treat the ability to post on Twitter as a civil right, he thinks that it should. Chamberlain’s “civil right” argument fails to mention that posting hateful content that violates platforms rules isn’t an immutable characteristic like race, and it also ignores the reality that access to platforms is obstructed only after engaging in violating behaviors, something users can avoid.
Chamberlain’s post came on the heels of Facebook’s decision to purge its platforms of the accounts of extremist figures -- the majority of them on the far-right -- due to repeated policy violations. On Twitter, where Chamberlain has an account that reaches over 48,000 followers, he’s made this argument ad nauseum.
During an interview with Tim Pool (a YouTuber who has a soft spot for “alt-right” figures and will also be attending the summit), titled “Republicans Face EXTINCTION Unless They Stop Online Censorship, Here’s How They Can Fight Back,” Chamberlain revealed that his argument has more to do with winning elections and power than with inalienable rights:
WILL CHAMBERLAIN: It will become untenable for conservatives to win national elections and and increasingly the conservative movement will become a regional party. The power of social media is both to both hijack the media's hive mind, and also to provide a space where conservatives can essentially lead on thought and motivate their voters to get out and vote. If the social media platforms constrain and constrict conservative speech and ban effective persuaders and influencers on the right, there's a huge boon to the left in terms of elections, so I don't see a way for Republicans to continue to win elections going forward if they let the left destroy them on social media
Pool’s YouTube channel is peppered with videos with titles such as “Google Email LEAKED, Proves Conservative Censorship At Youtube,” “Facebook Caught LYING About Censorship, Regulation Is Coming,” and “Conservative Movie Unplanned Being Censored By Twitter?!” These videos amplify the persecution narratives pushed by conservatives, and they are often based on little more than speculation or decontextualized anecdotes. Unsurprisingly, when someone he disagrees with has their Twitter account suspended for one reason or another, Pool's response is far from consistent with his free speech crusade.
For instance, in Pool’s video about the suspension of the account for the movie Unplanned, he amplified a conspiracy theory suggesting that Twitter was “trying really hard to restrict this information.” As it turns out, the Unplanned account had been suspended because an account that linked to it had been suspended. This was an example of one the steps Twitter has taken to crack down on “ban evasion.” As is often the case when accounts get temporarily suspended, it takes some time for the follower numbers to repopulate. In the case of Unplanned, seeing a massive dip in followers upon the account’s restoration seemed like proof of an even larger conspiracy -- even though this wasn’t the case. Throughout the video, Pool suggests that these mistakes all seem to go in a single direction -- against conservatives -- citing as an example the time Trump’s account was deleted on November 2, 2017, for 11 minutes. What Pool doesn’t note is that the man who accidentally deleted Trump’s account was reportedly an admirer of the president, not a rogue #Resistance figure.
Pool has asserted that “Twitter, by definition, is a biased platform in favor of the left. Period.” As proof, Pool points to the fact that Twitter’s harassment policy bans the misgendering of trans people. Never mind that Twitter bans all sorts of things -- for instance, just this week, the site expanded its hateful conduct policy as it relates to dehumanizing language used against people on the basis of religion. Regardless, Pool has pushed this one specific rule as an example of Twitter being biased against conservatives.
Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk has been one of the loudest proponents of the “anti-conservative bias” narrative, a talking point he was already pushing during a September 22, 2016, appearance on Fox Business. “Conservatives are targeted, blocked, and silenced on social media. The left runs social networks with a political, leftist, agenda,” he wrote in a tweet about the appearance. At the time, Kirk had fewer than 75,000 Twitter followers; as of this writing, he has more than 1.16 million followers. This would suggest that either tech’s attempts to “silence” conservatives on social media aren’t very successful or that Kirk wasn’t telling the truth (hint: it’s the latter). Since then, Kirk has continued to regularly spread easily debunked arguments and unsupported claims of censorship online.
For instance, in a May 4 tweet, Kirk suggests a series of hypotheticals. His example, “What if an airline says you can’t fly if you talk ‘hate,’” seems to ignore that there are a number of reasons an airline may already prevent you from flying. For a long time, you used to be allowed to smoke indoors in many places, even airplanes. That’s no longer the case. Smoking on planes is now prohibited to keep other users of the service safe, which isn’t equivalent to banning those smokers who comply with the rules from flying. What’s telling here is that while Kirk opposes what he would likely consider discrimination on the basis of something someone chooses to do, like the content they decide to post, he is in favor of legalized discrimination against people for who they are -- at least when it comes to LGBTQ people.
Kirk often posts retweet-bait designed to increase his engagement metrics while reinforcing his grievance narrative. Often, this takes the form of him saying that he receives “countless messages a day” from people who say they aren’t seeing his social media posts
He also occasionally posts outright misinformation that suits his agenda. For instance, he was one of many conservatives to share a narrative about right-wing media being suppressed by Google. In fact, the study he cites doesn’t say anything like that.
The pro-Trump meme creator known as Carpe Donktum is known almost exclusively because of his wide reach on social media, making claims that there is an inherent anti-conservative bias a bit odd. He’s cited suspensions of right-wing figures like Milo Yiannopoulos, Alex Jones, and Laura Loomer as evidence of anti-conservative bias and censorship. Each of those accounts were removed from their respective platforms for violating rules that they agreed to. Agreeing to a set of terms, breaking the terms, and then claiming oppression when you get removed as a result isn’t anti-conservative censorship.
He has argued that being kicked off of a social media platform for violating the rules is akin to being “unpersoned.”
After popular pro-Trump subreddit “The_Donald” was quarantined by Reddit due to “threats of violence against police and public officials,” Donktum claimed that there were no such threats and that this was all part of a plan by “Big TECH” to interfere with U.S. elections. In reality, posts on the subreddit about GOP legislators’ potential team-up with Oregon militia groups were littered with comments like “None of this gets fixed without people picking up rifles,” “burn Portland and Eugene to the ground,” and “No problems shooting a cop trying to strip rights from Citizens.”
Media Research Center founder Brent Bozell has loudly championed the narrative of tech bias, and he has been rewarded handsomely for it. Bozell has made frequent claims that social media platforms discriminate against conservatives, and that’s helped buy him a place of influence not afforded to anybody on the political left. In the fallout over a thinly sourced Gizmodo article posted in early 2016 claiming that Facebook’s trending curators were somehow suppressing conservative news, Bozell managed to find a spot along with more than a dozen other conservatives in a private meeting with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook has since bent over backwards to appease conservatives, playing right into Bozell’s hands.
In a tweet, Bozell wrote that Google’s public statements were contrary to “what they have said to us in private discussions,” seemingly oblivious to the fact that his involvement in “private discussions” with Google means that he’s part of an elite group of people with extraordinary power. This undercuts his entire argument, but it shows just how effective working the refs can be.
When Google made slight adjustments to its YouTube search results to no longer privilege anti-abortion misinformation and gory videos as often, Bozell flipped out and misrepresented the measure taken by the platform. Bozell also chooses to ignore the fact that anti-abortion content continues to dominate social media as a whole.
Like many others on the right, Bozell was insistent that Twitter was “shadow banning” conservatives long after a bug -- which affected people across the political spectrum -- had been fixed. This was not true, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey had addressed this rumor.
Students for Trump co-founder Ryan Fournier will also be appearing at the event. After a number of extremist accounts were removed from Facebook and Instagram, Fournier used the opportunity to promote Parler, a conservative social media alternative that hasn’t quite taken off due to glitches. Like others, Fournier glossed over the fact that these accounts were not removed simply for holding conservative views, but for engaging in actions that violated the terms all users agree to when signing up.
Ali Alexander (Akbar)
Ali Alexander (formerly known as Ali Akbar) is another right-wing media personality invited to the White House summit who is known for his large social media following and incendiary content, and he will also attend the summit. Alexander was once briefly suspended from Twitter, seemingly for urging followers to buy ammo and guns in preparation for a coming civil war.
After Vox’s Carlos Maza (a former Media Matters employee) tweeted about his frustration over YouTube not enforcing its anti-bullying rules, Alexander called this a “queer form of censorship.”
Despite having the ear of Twitter’s Dorsey, who follows him on the site and has said that Alexander makes “interesting points,” Alexander continues to insist that there is an anti-conservative bias at work on social media.
Summit attendee James O’Keefe of Project Veritas has made a number of claims regarding social media censorship that simply do not add up. Known for his sinister screw-ups and supposed exposés made up of misleading and context-deficient video clips, O’Keefe has taken aim at social media platforms in recent years.
In January 2018, O’Keefe published a series of videos claiming to prove the existence of political bias at Twitter by secretly filming Twitter employees who spoke in a personal capacity. His videos prompted conservative allegations of “shadow-banning” that were disproved by experts. Twitter also addressed the issue and negated the claims, as reported by Gizmodo:
“The individuals depicted in these videos were speaking in a personal capacity and do not represent or speak for Twitter,” said a Twitter spokesperson by email, pointing me to a page that explains how and why Twitter accounts are censored or made less visible. “Twitter does not shadowban accounts. We do take actions to downrank accounts that are abusive, and mark them accordingly so people can still click through and see this information if they so choose.”
O’Keefe’s sting targeting YouTube was just as misleading as his videos on Twitter, but it succeeded in fueling right-wing claims of bias against conservatives after the platform removed the video for “privacy violations.” With the help of an “insider,” O’Keefe has also mischaracterized Pinterest’s efforts to address abortion misinformation as an attack against Christians. O’Keefe has announced he’ll use his appearance at the White House summit to share stories with Trump from tech workers that ostensibly confirm conservative grievances of bias.