As claims to martyrdom go, a troll kicked off Twitter for posting naughty memes sounds not quite on par with the burning of Saint Antipas in ancient Rome. But this is President Trump’s America, and different standards of victimhood may apply.
On Saturday, right-wing Internet provocateurs from across the country gathered a few blocks from the White House to “Demand Free Speech,” as their literature put it, which amounted to yelling for several hours about how tech companies have banned, suspended and otherwise “deplatformed” them for being conservative.
Less than a week later, on Thursday, Trump is expected to host at least one of those speakers at the White House for a vaguely defined “summit” on social media, whose alleged bias he has raged against repeatedly. With other disinformation peddlers and censorship claimers reportedly on the guest list, the summit could be a landmark of the deplatforming movement.
“I was actually banned about 12, 13 times by Twitter!” Greg Aselbekian screamed when it was his turn to speak at the weekend rally. His voice had the hoarse, frantic quality of a father who has lost a child inside an airport, and sweat sprayed from beneath his “Make America Great Again” ball cap as he stomped and shook before the crowd in Freedom Plaza. “I may have been the first person in history completely banned from Tinder!” (He was not.)
Aselbekian was just a warm-up act. Several increasingly outraged and sweaty speeches led up to stars such as Laura Loomer, who handcuffed herself to the door of Twitter’s New York office after her suspension last year, and Milo Yiannopoulos, who was permanently banned from the platform in 2016 after joining a harassment campaign against the “Ghostbusters” actress Leslie Jones.
Ali Alexander, who went viral last month for claiming Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) is not an “American black,” left the rally in an SUV after his own appearance. “Great News!” he announced Wednesday on his non-suspended Twitter account. “White House has asked me to bring info on deplatformed citizens to tomorrow’s summit.”
He’ll have plenty to choose from. The notion that Silicon Valley has it out for conservatives long predates the Trump presidency, but a spate of right-wing violence in the past few years has prompted social media companies to crack down on extremist speech. And a small segment of Trump supporters — particularly young Internet natives — have a knack for getting taken offline, then loudly protesting.
Loomer sued Facebook for $3 billion this week. The company defamed “her profession and business as a conservative investigative journalist” when it purged her from its platform in May, the lawsuit states.
Yiannopoulos, one of the first deplatforming martyrs, launch a Patreon campaign to fund his “comeback” this year. Patreon found out about it and promptly banned him. Alex Jones, whose Infowars empire once spanned social media, has been relegated to obscure video sites where he sometimes yells at poop for attention.
The White House has not disclosed exactly whom Trump invited to Thursday’s event, or why, but the agenda is not much of a mystery. Trump has previously claimed a conspiracy theory of “Social Media and Fake News Media, together with their partner, the Democrat Party” is purging conservatives from the online conversation.
Trump has not presented evidence of such a plot, and the banned “conservatives” tend to be polemicists like Yiannopoulos, who constantly test social media companies’ rules against personal abuse and harassment.
Facebook, Twitter and Google all claim they enforce their rules regardless of political sentiment. But those companies reportedly didn’t get a White House invitation. Neatly scripted “The President requests the pleasure of your company” cards went instead to people such as Alexander; one of Trump’s favorite meme makers, Carpe Donktum; activist James O’Keefe, who announced last month that his organization, Project Veritas, was temporarily suspended from Twitter; and a cartoonist who draws Jewish billionaires puppeteering the U.S. military and Muslim mobs stoning white men and was kicked off Instagram earlier this year. (Politico reported Wednesday that the cartoonist, Ben Garrison, will no longer attend the summit.)
As for what they plan to discuss, Alexander has been asking his fans to suggest their own grievances he can take to the president.
“I’m just really honored and excited to be talking about the complexities of this issue,” he said on Twitter’s Periscope service, from which he has not been suspended. “And we do want to thank those deplatformed voices who are suffering.”