For months now, President Trump has been amplifying a message popular with the political right. His claim, presented without evidence, is that technology companies are biased against him and conservatives more broadly. It’s an issue that his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., has been particularly adamant about promoting after an Instagram post he published, comparing a border wall to zoo fencing, was removed from the platform.
The claims consistently center on changes being made by companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter to tamp down on hate speech or misinformation, an issue that (conveniently for those implying a political motivation) rose to public attention after the 2016 campaign. As that campaign wound down, there was a great deal of attention paid to both right-wing, racist rhetoric and overtly false information spurring calls for the platforms to curtail similar content. In short order, Trump co-opted the phrase “fake news” to refer to reporting critical of his administration, but the original spur for the term was literal false information that was common online. That false information was often also pro-Trump, because — as Macedonian news hustlers explained to BuzzFeed — it did better traffic.
So the companies changed their systems. Facebook eliminated its news feed, which had been hand-curated to eliminate untrue information but quickly became a vector for misinformation once that curation was removed. Twitter established a system for downplaying users who had been repeatedly flagged as abusive, spurring claims (including by Trump) that conservatives were being unfairly muted or “shadow banned.” And, last month, the conservative activist group Project Veritas revealed that Google has been both trying to ensure that its algorithms don’t exacerbate bias and that it isn’t a tool for propagating fake news.
In Veritas’s framing, though, this was further evidence that the site was trying to silence conservative voices. It presented, among other things, undercover video from a Google employee who argued that the company wanted to ensure that the 2020 election didn’t have the same problems as 2016 — something that she separately explained was a reference to efforts to better prevent potential foreign interference.
But Veritas, in a video complete with ominous music and an anonymous whistleblower with a gravelly, altered voice, used quotes from the executive with incomplete context to imply that the company was trying to prevent another election of Trump. That Google employees were videotaped lamenting Trump’s win at a company meeting shortly after the election provided fertile soil for Veritas’s presentation of the company’s changes.
In an interview with Trump taped while the president was in Asia, Fox News' Tucker Carlson presented Google's bias against Trump as an established fact.
“Google, by some measures, the most powerful company in the world — all information flows through it — they’re against you,” Carlson said. “They don’t want you reelected. Can you get reelected if Google is against you?”
What’s remarkable about this entire framework — which, again, is prevalent on the right — is that it willfully intertwines concerns about online abuse and far-right politics with support for Trump and other Republicans. This tension was embodied in a report from Vice News in which a Twitter employee claimed that the social media company was having trouble drawing a line between prohibited hate speech and rhetoric used by prominent right-wing politicians.
Trump, of course, accepted Carlson’s presentation as fact, claiming that Google “fought me very hard” in 2016 — a claim that he seems to have snatched from midair. Tech employees in California probably favored Hillary Clinton by a wide margin in the 2016 election, but that’s very different than claiming that the company itself and its tools were “fighting” Trump.
The president revisited a claim he's made in the past that Twitter is somehow making it hard to follow him, as though he isn't one of the recommendations presented to new users as someone they might follow.
"I have so many people coming up that they say, 'Sir, it's so hard. They make it hard to follow,'" Trump claimed. Then, as he does, he went further: “What they're doing is wrong and possibly illegal. And a lot of things are being looked at right now.”
Carlson picked this up.
"So you just said that what the tech companies are doing is maybe illegal,” he said. “Is there a role for the Justice Department in finding out?”
Last month, Trump claimed that the government might sue the tech companies. To Carlson, he was more circumspect.
"Well, they could be and I don't want to even say whether or not they're doing something, but I will tell you, there are a lot of people that want us to and there are a lot of people — all you have to do is pick up a newspaper and read it or see it or watch Fox or watch some other network,” Trump said.
That, of course, is the point. Trump’s familiarity with the intricacies of training algorithms or building digital gateways to filter out abusive actors is — if we are being generous — limited. That he presents following him on Twitter as something unduly tricky to the point of somehow breaking the law suggests that his assessments of what tech companies are doing might not be reliable in their expertise.
What he says, though, is that he's hearing all these complaints on Fox, so clearly something must be wrong? It is, to some extent, the story of his presidency. Many of his campaign promises were largely things he'd seen on Fox and accepted as accurate: criticisms of things Barack Obama had done or lamentations about what he hadn't.
It's at this point in the interview that Trump gives the whole thing away. It's at this point that he makes clear what his actual intent is in targeting these companies.
"There are a lot of people that want us to take action against Facebook and against Twitter and frankly, against Amazon,” Trump said.
"Yes,” Carlson replied.
"Amazon also,” Trump continued. “A lot of people want us to take action.”
"Are you going to?” Carlson asked.
"I can’t say that, Tucker,” the president replied. “That I can’t say.”
Amazon, as you may know, was founded by and is currently run by Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post. That’s why Trump is hostile to Amazon: Because he’s hostile to this newspaper. There are only two senses in which Amazon is comparable to Google in the context of this interview with Carlson. First, it is a technology company. Second, it is a company that Trump thinks he can punish to get back at his political enemies.
Trump isn’t worried about how Amazon’s algorithms are biased against conservatives; if there’s any argument that it is, I haven’t seen it. He’s just mad that there exist companies or other actors who in any way challenge his authority. Trump’s expansive definition of illegality consistently centers on those whom he perceives as having done him wrong. Twitter broke the law because he gets mad at Twitter.
The Post reported on Tuesday that Trump would be hosting a “social media summit” this month, focused on perceived bias by companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook. (The White House attempted to bolster this narrative by adding an online form in which it solicited anecdotal examples of bias.) The “summit” will seemingly mostly be a conservative Festivus, based on the invite list, with vocal right-leaning critics of the companies invited to participate to share their gripes.
The extent to which participants discuss Amazon — not a social media company but who’s counting — will be interesting to see.