But some of the president’s biggest social-media boosters haven’t exactly toned things down, before and after the twin tragedies.
The conservative firebrands who gathered at the White House on July 11 for the president’s first “social media summit” have spent the past few weeks fanning racial resentment, promoting conspiracy theories and generally engaging in the kind of polarizing rhetoric that contributes to the nation’s toxic political discourse.
The summit was held to highlight the White House’s contention that platforms such as Google, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are biased against pro-Trump voices and are systematically banning them or censoring some of their postings.
If anything, however, some of the summit’s attendees appear to be living proof against that notion. Bold, even extreme opinions have flowed freely from them since the event.
Ali Alexander, a summit attendee who has more than 100,000 Twitter followers, has continued to question Democratic candidate Kamala D. Harris’s racial background, sparking charges that he is waging a “birther”-like campaign against the California senator. Alexander, who described himself in a recent Facebook post as “a GOP communications operative,” first tweeted in late June that Harris was not an “American black” because she is of Jamaican and Indian heritage. The comment was retweeted and then deleted by the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. (“Is this true? Wow,” he wrote), helping it to go viral. Harris has said that the attacks on her background are “challenging” and “hurtful” but that she’s focusing her energies elsewhere.
Since he was accorded an invitation to the White House, Alexander’s Twitter feed has been studded with other provocations, such as his amplification of Trump’s attack on Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and his Baltimore district. During the second Democratic primary debate, he tweeted, “Democrats got all hot and heavy when President Trump called the murderous MS-13 gang ‘animals’ and then complained when Trump pointed out that the literal rat infestation in Baltimore is hurting Blacks. At some point Democrats must admit: they want the USA to be a Latinx ghetto.”
In an interview, Alexander stood by his Harris and Baltimore tweets. “The fact is, [Harris] is not an African American,” he said. “I intend to make sure every black voter knows what she is and isn’t.” He acknowledged that his Baltimore comment was “a bit sensational,” but said it was meant to highlight his contention that Democrats are “soft” on immigration enforcement.
Another of the White House’s social-media summiteers, Internet broadcaster and prolific tweeter Bill Mitchell, has continued to promote the convoluted QAnon conspiracy theory to his 459,000 Twitter followers. The QAnon movement promotes a stew of alleged plots by a cabal of Democratic politicians, entertainment figures, businesspeople and “Deep State” government officials against Trump.
“If #Qanon is wrong, it’s harmless fun,” Mitchell tweeted on Aug. 2. “If #Qanon is right, #DeepState is SCREWED. I like those odds.”
A recent FBI memo warned that QAnon and other fringe conspiracy beliefs could pose a domestic terrorism threat. But in an interview, Mitchell dismissed this. He called any link to terrorism “specious at best.” He added, “QAnon are just patriots trying to make sense of all the craziness … I personally do not even read Q. Not my thing. But the Q people seem quite nice in general and love Trump, so I’m good with that.”
Another summit participant, the meme-maker who goes by the Internet handle Carpe Donktum, trolled the Democratic primary debate last week by marrying audio of the Soviet Union’s national anthem to a clip of 10 of the candidates standing at attention, hands over hearts. He also tricked up the video to include a Soviet flag in the foreground — a suggestion that the Democrats are devoted to socialism and communism. His caption: “I may hate what they stand for but at least I can respect the Democrats honesty.”
Donktum, whose real name is Logan Cook, is one of Trump’s online favorites. The president welcomed him into the Oval Office, greeting him as a “genius.” Trump has shared several of his creations, including an animation in which former vice president Joe Biden appears to grope himself.
In an exchange of direct messages, Donktum/Cook said that the summit last month strengthened the connections among pro-Trump social-media influencers. “We have already seen this being used to great effect [through] more sharing and better outreach as the audiences of all those in the room overlap,” he said.
Since El Paso and Dayton, he has deplored political violence on “all” sides, but he’s not hopeful that the nation’s divisions will heal anytime soon. “I would love for the country to come together to solve problems, but that does not seem to be a major focus of anyone at this time,” he wrote.
Another summit invitee, self-described “rogue cartoonist” Ben Garrison, has offered his take on the shootings in recent days.
One of Garrison’s drawings shows a snake labeled “8chan” that has been cut into pieces with a cleaver marked “Cloudflare,” with blood labeled “Free Speech” oozing from the serpent’s dismembered body. The image was meant to protest Cloudflare’s decision to stop providing Internet security services to 8chan, a notorious far-right message board on which the alleged El Paso shooter posted a racist rant that decried “the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
Garrison was supposed to be at the summit but the White House disinvited him two days beforehand, according to Politico, after learning that he drew a cartoon deemed “blatantly anti-Semitic” by the Anti-Defamation League. Garrison didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Since the White House summit, Trump has continued to assail the tech giants and has threatened new regulations against them in retaliation for what he asserts is censorship. The companies uniformly deny they discriminate based on users’ political loyalties.
Katherine Haenschen, a communications professor at Virginia Tech who studies social media, said there is “minimal evidence” that the social-media companies muzzle conservative voices. But events like the summit and Trump’s continued attacks prime his supporters to suspect bias in the tech giants and to discount claims of foreign interference on social media on his behalf.
“Broadly speaking,” said Haenschen, “the summit points to the real problem we have in this country” — an imbalance between information and misinformation, with the latter fueling political polarization.
“It’s worrisome,” she said, “because an informed citizenry is one of the necessary components for democracy to function. What do we do as citizens when [information sources] exist to distort and outright misinform segments of the public for political gain?”