The White House on Wednesday escalated its war against Silicon Valley when it announced an unprecedented campaign asking Internet users to share if they had been censored on Facebook, Google and Twitter, tapping into President Trump’s long-running claim that tech giants are biased against conservatives.
The effort, which the White House said on Twitter was directed at users “no matter your views,” seeks to collect names, contact information and other details from Americans. The survey asks whether they have encountered problems on Facebook, Instagram, Google-owned YouTube, Twitter or other social media sites — companies the president frequently takes aim at for alleged political censorship.
The survey claims that “too many Americans have seen their accounts suspended, banned, or fraudulently reported for unclear ‘violations’ of user policies.”
The White House also asked users for permission to send new email newsletters about “President Trump’s fight for free speech," so that the administration “can update you without relying on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.” The president, a prolific Twitter user, regularly blasts out his political thoughts to more than 60 million followers on the site.
The Trump administration declined Wednesday to address what it planned to do with the data it’s amassing, including whether it seeks to regulate social-media platforms. “The White House wants to hear from all Americans — regardless of their political leanings — if they have been impacted by bias on social media platforms,” spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement.
For their part, Facebook, Google and Twitter long have denied that they engage in political censorship. Facebook and Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In a statement, Twitter stressed it enforces its rules “impartially for all users, regardless of their background or political affiliation.”
The new online campaign marks Trump’s latest attack on the tech industry, which he has threatened to regulate in response to allegations that the companies censor right-leaning users and websites. Trump’s broadsides have resonated among upper echelons of the Republican Party, which has grilled tech executives at multiple congressional hearings — and has used the fodder for campaign fundraising.
But the White House’s salvo comes the same day that it opted against supporting an international campaign to crack down on hate speech and other forms of online extremism. The Trump administration did not endorse the Christchurch call — named after a city in New Zealand where an attacker inspired by online hate killed 51 people — saying the symbolic pact conflicted with the Constitution’s guarantees of free speech.
In its new online campaign, the White House’s form asks people to detail whether Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or others “took action against your account,” and asked for usernames or links to users’ profiles or specific posts, including tweets, that may have been flagged by one of the tech companies. The White House also asked to see copies of notifications that social-media sites sent to users when they take action against their posts, photos or videos.
The survey immediately triggered widespread criticism. Free-speech advocates feared the White House might try to restrict online speech, while consumer protection groups questioned if the president’s threats might deter Silicon Valley companies from policing their platforms as they sought to skirt allegations of political bias.
“This misguided effort by the White House raises serious constitutional questions and could hamper the ability of platforms to moderate their platforms and take down such content,” said John Bergmayer, senior counsel at Public Knowledge, a D.C.-based consumer group.
Alex Howard, a longtime open-government advocate who previously worked at the Sunlight Foundation, fretted that the administration is “using official taxpayer resources, [and] the official White House account” for its new campaign, which he said seeks to “create data, create a list of cases, to substantiate the president’s conspiracy theory.”
Trump has grown especially critical of Silicon Valley in recent weeks, after Facebook this month announced it had banned some far-right leaders, including users affiliated with the conspiracy theory website Infowars, out of concern they had become “dangerous.” The president took to Twitter to air his grievances, promising to “monitor” the industry for its “censorship of AMERICAN CITIZENS."
Often, though, the incidents Trump has cited as evidence that the tech industry targets conservatives have been inaccurate or misleading. Last month, for example, Trump accused Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey at a private meeting of silencing conservatives and secretly removing some of the president’s followers. In fact, the number of followers often fluctuates because of Twitter’s efforts to remove fake or fraudulent accounts.
It is not uncommon for the White House — under Trump or his predecessors — to turn to the Web to mobilize supporters or collect stories to advance policy priorities. The Obama administration tapped social media for insight regularly. But Republican critics at times sharply criticized the former Democratic president’s work, including a push in 2009 to collect misleading messages in the early days of the health-care reform debate.
Ten years later, as Trump embarks on his own controversial data collection effort, one White House veteran pointed out the hypocrisy.
“It’s consistent with their strategy to use whatever tactic they can to sow more distrust, confusion and division, rather than try to offer up clear information about the president’s agenda and policies,” said Macon Phillips, Obama’s former director of digital strategy.