Earlier this week, Britain’s ambassador to the United States was forced to resign his position after the release of confidential cables in which he offered his assessments of President Trump. Those cables, intended for his country’s government, included descriptions of Trump as “radiating insecurity,” spurring outrage from the president. Trump responded with a flurry of pejoratives of his own over Twitter, intended for a much broader audience. With a change in power in the U.K. making his position particularly untenable, Ambassador Kim Darroch announced plans to step down.
This is one way in which Trump is eager to use Twitter. While past presidents — ones with less access to social-media tools and perhaps more restraint — might have privately communicated with the British government about Darroch’s comments or issued a statement through the press office, Trump just grabs his phone. It’s a demonstration of two of Trump’s guiding communication principles: Twitter is his way to sidestep the media and, when punched, he punches back.
On Thursday, the president will host a summit focused on social media at the White House. Formally, it’s an event focused on having “a robust conversation on the opportunities and challenges of today’s online environment,” a White House spokesman told the New York Times. Informally, it’s a response to ongoing conservative complaints that they are being unfairly and systematically targeted by social media companies for their political beliefs.
We'll interject here to note that there's no compelling evidence that this is the case. There has been a push by social media companies in recent years to crack down on abusive or hateful rhetoric. It might not be entirely surprising then that supporters of a president who disparages “political correctness” and embraces rhetoric hostile to his opponents should find themselves occasionally a target of efforts to tamp down on abuse. Donald Trump Jr., for example, became infuriated at social media companies after Instagram removed an image he'd shared. It compared a wall on the border with Mexico to the walls at a zoo.
So Trump invited a number of sympathetic and controversial allies to the White House to discuss all of this. He didn’t invite the companies themselves, nor did he invite more obviously problematic individuals like representatives of Infowars (though he’s previously defended one on Twitter). One cartoonist who’d received an invitation found it suddenly revoked after anti-Semitic cartoons he’d drawn and shared were surfaced — a somewhat ironic effort by the administration to tamp down on toxic content. (Twitter, mind you, has allowed the cartoon to stay up.)
What does Trump hope to achieve? Let's let the president himself explain, as he did in a series of tweets on Thursday morning.
“A big subject today at the White House Social Media Summit will be the tremendous dishonesty, bias, discrimination and suppression practiced by certain companies,” he began. “We will not let them get away with it much longer.”
Again: There’s no evidence that this is actually the case. There have been repeated efforts to demonstrate bias, by, for example, accusing Google of trying to rig the 2020 election or Twitter of sabotaging conservative voices. As we’ve written, though, those claims are easily rebutted and derive, instead, from efforts by the companies to foster a more welcoming environment.
"The Fake News Media will also be there, but for a limited period,” Trump continued. “The Fake News is not as important, or as powerful, as Social Media. They have lost tremendous credibility since that day in November, 2016, that I came down the escalator with the person who was to become your future First Lady. When I ultimately leave office in six years, or maybe 10 or 14 (just kidding), they will quickly go out of business for lack of credibility, or approval, from the public. That’s why they will all be Endorsing me at some point, one way or the other."
Setting aside the fact that Trump came down the escalator at Trump Tower in June 2015, we can focus on the central argument: The media has benefited from Trump's presidency to the extent that he thinks he'll be endorsed for reelection by various media outlets.
The sentences above are internally contradictory. The “Fake News” isn’t as important as social media and has lost credibility — but have been boosted economically by Trump’s presidency? How does that work? Trump fans ... buy newspapers ... to hate-read? If so, and you’re one, hello!
(Or perhaps the Trump era has fostered an increased appreciation for an independent media, as polling indicates.)
You'll notice that Trump puts the endpoint of his presidency at six years in the future (mid-2025, somehow), or maybe 10 or 14. This is a troll. Trump knows that talking about staying in office past two full terms inspires conniptions from his opponents so he likes to bring it up. Is there some part of him that likes to think it might happen? Sure. But he mostly raises it just to annoy people.
This, by itself, is indirectly revealing about Trump’s “summit.” Among those who are invited, who have already met Trump, in fact, is a Twitter user who goes by @CarpeDonktum. Trump referred to Mr. Donktum as a “genius,” having recently retweeted a video the genius made showing Trump running for the presidency for decades.
CarpeDonktum doesn’t seem to have been a target of any purported suppression by the social media companies. He’s there not because he can inveigh against Twitter’s rules, here’s there because Trump likes him and likes his tweets. Donktum will almost certainly empathize with Trump’s complaints — if his online presence is any indicator — which will presumably be sufficient for the president. Bring a few buds together, crack open a bottle of water bearing the presidential seal and complain about libs. A chill afternoon, like the time he invited Kid Rock and Sarah Palin to dinner.
Oh, by the way: Trump's explanation of the social media summit wasn't over.
"Could you imagine having Sleepy Joe Biden, or @AlfredENeuman99, or a very nervous and skinny version of Pocahontas (1000/24th), as your President,” he wrote, “rather than what you have now, so great looking and smart, a true Stable Genius! Sorry to say that even Social Media would be driven out of business along with, and finally, the Fake News Media!"
“AlfredENeuman99” is a random guy on Twitter with 416 followers. Trump was intending to disparage South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whom he calls “Alfred E. Neuman,” after the MAD magazine character. The “very nervous and skinny” person is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whom Trump describes here as 1000/24 Native American, or Native American nearly 42 times over. (He’d meant to say that she was 1/1024th Native American, his shorthand for a DNA test she took.)
Imagine former vice president Joe Biden or Buttigieg or Warren as president instead of the “great looking and smart,” “Stable Genius” that is Trump! A president who pilloried a foreign ambassador on Twitter for suggesting some that he might harbor some insecurity.
Four tweets, filled with errors, disparaging a member of the Senate using the name of a famous Native American, attacking social media itself. It is, perhaps, a perfect encapsulation of what the social media summit is likely to entail: griping, partisan potshots and a celebration of Trump as president.