Conservative tech critics file in as White House social media summit kicks off

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Donald Trump

President Donald Trump arrives to during a “Presidential Social Media Summit” in the East Room of the White House Thursday. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

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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The president 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.

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, but Trump didn’t refrain from slamming them.

“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 he currently has if Twitter weren’t blocking people from following his account. He also claimed that the number of “likes” on his tweets fluctuate suspiciously.

The comments came in a meandering speech in which Trump 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 to 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, whotook the opportunity to boost his proposal to strip liability protections from the major tech companies. The immunity is afforded to online platforms under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

“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, Reps. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who have all hammered tech companies over bias claims.

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 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.”

Even before the summit started, it appeared to sow some discord among certain far-right provocateurs who had actually been banned on social media platforms and were not invited to the White House.

Indeed, some of the most prominent far-right personalities who have been banned for spreading hoaxes or inciting violence were left off the guest list. That includes InfoWars founder Alex Jones, right-wing activist Laura Loomer, conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulos and Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes.

That had some of Trump’s loudest and most controversial allies suddenly 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.

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