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Inside Facebook and Twitter’s secret meetings with Trump aides and conservative leaders who say tech is biased

Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey. (Richard Drew/AP)

Twitter and Facebook are scrambling to assuage conservative leaders who have sounded alarms — and sought to rile voters — with accusations that the country’s tech giants are censoring right-leaning posts, tweets and news.

From secret dinners with conservative media elite to private meetings with the Republican National Committee, the new outreach reflects tech giants’ delicate task: satisfying a party in power while defending online platforms against attacks that threaten to undermine the public’s trust in the Web.

The complaints have come from the upper echelons of the GOP, including top aides to President Trump, arguably the world's most prominent Twitter user. The chief executives of Facebook and Twitter, meanwhile, have both admitted in recent months that Silicon Valley’s ranks are dominated by liberals, which has only fed accusations of bias from the right.

“It’s no secret that we are largely left leaning, and we all have biases,” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey wrote in a note to staff on June 7. “That includes me, our board, and our company.”

To address the allegations, Dorsey has tried to break bread — quite literally — with his company’s critics.

The Twitter executive convened a rare private dinner with Republican leaders and conservative commentators in Washington last week at Cafe Milano, a familiar Georgetown haunt for city power brokers, according to four people who participated in the dinner but spoke on the condition of anonymity because it was off the record. The gathering came weeks after Dorsey provoked conservatives’ ire by tweeting a story suggesting voters should elect Democrats in November — and after he made his first official visit to Congress.

Among those attending the June 19 dinner were Mercedes Schlapp, a top communications adviser for President Trump; Grover Norquist, the leader of Americans for Tax Reform; television host Greta Van Susteren, and Guy Benson, a Fox News commentator, according to the people in the room.

Dorsey hoped to use the dinner as a way to build “trust” among conservatives who have long chastised the company, three of the people said. He defended Twitter against accusations that it targeted right-leaning users unfairly but still admitted that the company has room for improvement, according to the attendees.

In response, the Twitter executive heard an earful from conservatives gathered at the table, who scoffed at the fact that Dorsey runs a platform that’s supposed to be neutral even though he’s tweeted about issues like immigration, gay rights and national politics. They also told Dorsey that the tech industry’s efforts to improve diversity — after years of criticism for maintaining a largely white, male workforce — should focus on hiring engineers with more diverse political viewpoints as well, according to those who dined with him in D.C.

A spokesman for Twitter declined to comment on the dinner.

For Dorsey and his peers, the conservative clamor could be more than a public-relations nuisance. It could result in calls for new regulation from Republicans in positions of power and feed doubts in the minds of Web users as to whether their social feeds are subject to secret political engineering — a charge of censorship that tech giants strongly deny.

“When you put these platforms in the context of all the other sources of information available for news … at no other time in history, no other platforms have enabled such huge diversity of voices,” said Michael Beckerman, the president of the Internet Association, which represents companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter in regulatory battles.

Conservatives long have bristled about the politics of Silicon Valley, where many tech executives and engineers supported President Barack Obama, then rallied behind Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House in 2016. But criticism from the right crescendoed in May, when Brad Parscale, the campaign manager for Trump’s 2020 reelection, joined Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the RNC, and publicly reprimanded the tech industry. The duo slapped Twitter for having “hidden” conservative content “from conservative users' followers.” They also took aim at Facebook, alleging it “has blocked content from conservative journalists.”

For years, conservatives have alleged Twitter and Facebook secretly limit the reach of their content — even though Republicans are some of their most popular users. Twitter, for example, stoked Republicans’ ire last year when it briefly blocked a congresswoman from advertising about abortion. Facebook’s labeling of two pro-Trump video bloggers, Diamond and Silk, as “unsafe” resulted in a Capitol Hill hearing where the duo aired numerous falsehoods. And Google stared down its own controversy: A conservative-leaning engineer, James Damore, penned a memo criticizing the company’s diversity policies, resulting in his firing. In response, he and others filed a lawsuit claiming conservative bias at the company.

Amid the attacks, Dorsey this summer began extending an olive branch to some of Twitter’s leading critics. The entreaty appeared to divide employees: Some at Twitter welcomed Dorsey’s outreach while others privately groused about their boss reaching out to Republicans who had ties to Trump, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.

Along with the gathering in D.C., Dorsey also hosted a dinner in New York City with local conservative media leaders, two attendees confirmed. Dorsey has consulted with Fox News host Sean Hannity, a public ally of Trump. And the Twitter executive has made two trips to assuage Republicans on Capitol Hill during the past two months, including a sit-down last week with GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, who has publicly blasted the tech industry for anti-conservative bias. Cruz’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Some of the conservative media commentators and political pundits specifically urged Dorsey during their meetings to take a closer look at Moments, a feature that tracks trending national stories and issues. At both the New York and D.C. dinners, conservative participants said they felt that Twitter Moments often paints right-leaning people and issues in a negative light, or excludes them entirely, according to four individuals who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Dorsey said he would look into the issue, the people said, but did not announce specific changes.

Complicating matters is that executives in the uppermost ranks of Facebook, Google and Twitter are some of the most outspoken corporate foes of Trump. That’s led to suspicions among conservatives that tech companies’ efforts to clean up their platforms, by banning hate speech and vetting some content for misinformation, are actually targeting them.

Earlier this month, Facebook dispatched company leaders to the RNC to address complaints of bias levied by party leaders and the Trump campaign. A month after CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged in a Capitol Hill hearing that Silicon Valley is an “extremely left-leaning place” — even as he stressed Facebook applies its policies evenly — Facebook commissioned a full review of its business practices to determine if there’s any conservative bias in how it treats employees or the way it handles content that appears on its News Feed. That team, led by former GOP senator Jon Kyl, has contacted conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation for early feedback, according to a person familiar with the review but not authorized to discuss it.

Kyl declined to comment. Facebook also declined to comment on the review. In a statement, the company said users’ feeds are a reflection of the pages and people they follow, adding it does not “suppress content on the basis of political viewpoint or prevent people from seeing what matters most to them because doing so would be directly contrary to Facebook’s mission and our business objectives.”

Privately, tech leaders believe the timing of Republicans’ allegations is no coincidence, coming a few months before the 2018 election. It could serve to GOP voters in a contest where the composition of Congress is at stake.

Much as Trump has taken aim at news media, some of his allies have focused their attention on tech platforms that are the conduits for political reporting and opinion. That includes Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, a beneficiary of donations from Google and Facebook’s political-action committees. In fact, McCarthy’s reelection campaign has run roughly 20 ads over the past month on Facebook about anti-conservative bias, according to the social giant’s transparency hub. Clicking on McCarthy’s ad led to a petition, then a request to donate.

“It’s time to stand up and let online platforms such as Google and Facebook know that we will not be silenced so easily,” McCarthy wrote on the site.