The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump looks to rally controversial online allies at White House social media summit

President Trump at the White House in July. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described the findings of an investigation by the California attorney general into a 2009 video produced by activist James O’Keefe. The investigators did not conclude that the video was false, but that it had been “heavily edited” and did not reflect “a fuller truth.” The earlier version also omitted O’Keefe’s acknowledgement of an aspect of the finding, which has now been included in the story.

President Trump has summoned Republican lawmakers, political strategists and social media stars to the White House on Thursday to discuss the “opportunities and challenges” of the Web — but his upcoming summit, critics say, could end up empowering online provocateurs who have adopted controversial political tactics entering the 2020 election campaign.

The high-profile gathering follows months of attacks from Trump claiming that Facebook, Google and Twitter — all services the president taps to talk to supporters — secretly censor right-leaning users, websites and other content online, a charge of political bias that the tech giants strongly deny.

“I’m concerned there are people who work at the major technology platforms who want to put their thumb on the scale,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who plans to attend the White House summit.

But Trump hasn’t invited any of the major tech companies, people familiar with the White House plans say, opting instead to grant a powerful stage to people who have a track record of sending inflammatory tweets and videos and posting other troubling content that social media sites increasingly are under pressure to remove.

Among the expected attendees are James O’Keefe, the founder of Project Veritas, which has released secretly recorded videos of subjects, including a Google executive, in an attempt to paint them as politically biased. Another invitee, Ben Garrison, has published cartoons that have drawn sharp rebukes from the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center for including hateful text and imagery. O’Keefe confirmed his attendance and defended his tactics this week. Garrison, who tweeted a copy of his invitation, did not respond to a request for comment.

Announced in June, the president’s summit comes the same week that a federal judge ruled that Trump is prohibited by the First Amendment from blocking critics from his Twitter feed. Last month, Twitter said it would begin labeling tweets from Trump that violate its policies but are allowed to stay on the site because he is a national political figure.

In a statement, White House spokesman Judd Deere said the administration opted to convene the event after hearing from “thousands” of Americans across the political spectrum that they had been affected by bias online. He said Trump “wants to engage directly with these digital leaders in a discussion on the power of social media,” but he declined to provide a full list of attendees.

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In recent months, Trump has intensified his attacks on Facebook, Google and Twitter for allegedly limiting his online reach, often citing disputed evidence in making his claims about bias. During a recent interview on Fox Business, the president even charged that Google seeks to rig the upcoming election. Twitter said any variation in Trump’s follower count is the result of the company’s efforts to delete automated accounts known as bots.

Despite the threats, though, Trump remains one of social media's most prolific users. He has purchased millions of dollars in ads on Facebook and Google, which owns YouTube, while broadcasting his political views to an audience of more than 61 million followers on Twitter each day, a strategy that helped catapult Trump to the White House in the first place.

Trump’s Silicon Valley broadsides have resonated among fellow conservatives, who say they’ve been unfairly targeted by social media giants headquartered near liberal-leaning San Francisco. The broadsides have also sparked GOP-led hearings on Capitol Hill, where Facebook, Google and Twitter have maintained they are politically neutral. Some of those congressional critics will join the White House summit Thursday along with conservative activists and right-leaning social media figures.

The regulatory risks are high for the industry: Federal law shields tech giants from lawsuits and other liability for the content their users post or the decisions companies make about the content they leave up or take down. But some conservatives have called for an end to that legal shield, even proposing that the government use antitrust laws to penalize Facebook, Google and Twitter for their actions.

“The president is taking the lead here. He’s really standing up for all Americans and making sure that conservatives aren’t silenced,” said Christian Ziegler, the vice chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, who is slated to attend. A digital director for various Republican campaigns since 2006, he said he’s long suspected his clients’ reach has been limited by social media platforms.

Facebook, Google and Twitter declined to comment for this article.

The White House summit is part of a broader offensive by Trump and his staff to encourage pro-Trump influencers online. Several Web activists even claimed last week to have gotten tickets from the Trump administration to watch the president’s Fourth of July event on the Mall before being invited to the White House to discuss social media. The beneficiaries included Ali Alexander, who recently tweeted that Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) is not an “American black” after her appearance at the party’s first 2020 presidential debate, a remark given greater reach after the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., retweeted it. Alexander did not respond to requests for comment.

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Two meme creators who have been favored by Trump and his staff, who use the online handles @mad_liberals and @CarpeDonktum, had a 20-minute Oval Office meeting with the president July 3. The user @CarpeDonktum previously won a $10,000 anti-mainstream media meme contest sponsored by the conspiracy-theory website Infowars, which has been barred on major social media sites. He recently created a fake animated cover of Time magazine that suggested Trump would stay in office forever. Trump retweeted the video, getting more than 25 million views on Twitter.

“Where is the genius? I want to meet the genius,” Trump said to @CarpeDonktum as the men entered the Oval Office, according to the recollection of @mad_liberals. Both men spoke to The Washington Post about their experience with the president on the condition their full names not be used because they fear online or in-person harassment.

The two have complained of unfair treatment by social media companies. @CarpeDonktum’s account on Twitter was suspended for eight days, he said, after he posted an altered spaghetti western video that showed Trump slapping and shooting a gun at CNN reporter Jim Acosta. @Mad_liberals said Instagram shut down his account for reasons that are not clear to him.

In seeking to rally his online troops, though, Trump has controversial conservatives who have clashed with Facebook, Google and Twitter for posting content that violates their rules.

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O’Keefe’s Project Veritas, for example, is known for its deceptive tactics: A woman working with the organization once tried to deceive Post reporters into thinking she had been impregnated by Roy Moore, who unsuccessfully ran to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate. The woman’s false tale, which she told over two weeks in interviews with Post reporters, was an apparent effort to discredit Post stories about Moore’s involvement with underage girls. The woman’s story did not check out, however, and The Post reporters eventually saw her enter the New York offices of Project Veritas.

More recently, Project Veritas published secretly recorded video of Google executive Jen Gennai, a clip that appears to depict her saying Google wants to prevent Trump’s reelection. Gennai has said Project Veritas took her comments out of context, and YouTube has removed the video on grounds it violated the privacy rights of a “third party.”

In a statement Tuesday, O’Keefe defended Project Veritas and its methods. “Other than the pimp coat in a trailer and a scene change in a restaurant nearly ten years ago, nobody has been able to name one factually misleading edit in any of our hundred plus investigations,” he said.

O’Keefe was referring to a 2009 incident, when his organization first came to wide public attention, after it published a video that claimed to show two workers for the anti-poverty organization ACORN plotting to commit fraud. The California attorney general’s office later concluded O’Keefe’s video had been “heavily edited” and did not reflect “a fuller truth,” and O’Keefe settled a lawsuit brought by one of the workers.

Critics expressed early unease with the White House’s decision to invite such participants at a moment when the risks of disinformation remain high, three years after Russian agents spread falsehoods on social media during the 2016 presidential election. Experts have pointed to recent examples — including a fabricated video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), edited to make her look inebriated — that went viral on Facebook and Twitter despite their heightened vigilance ahead of the 2020 race.

“They’re advocating for a particular kind of social media system where they are allowed to harass, defame [and] post indecent content, and not be censured for it, and not be moderated in any way,” said Joan Donovan, the director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard University. “They want the benefits of social media with none of the civility.”

Trump’s social media habits have triggered controversy, too: On Monday, he retweeted a 2017 meme that featured a quote falsely attributed to President Ronald Reagan. The tweet, which praised Trump, received more than 40,000 likes. Facebook previously had flagged it as false, and Twitter suspended the account. The company declined to comment on the specific reason for the suspension.

White House officials announced their social media summit last month, on the same day that Trump assailed Silicon Valley for being “against me” — and threatened to regulate it in response. It capped off a roughly month-long period during which the White House solicited stories from the public about instances of censorship online, along with their contact information. Since disabled, a new Web page in place of the original survey says the White House received “thousands” of submissions in response.

The campaign, developed then tweeted by the White House, drew sharp rebukes from lawmakers, free-speech advocates and open-government experts, who saw it as a misuse of federal resources. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) blasted the White House at the time for a campaign to “pressure tech companies ahead of the 2020 elections and score political points.”

Some Republicans, however, defended Trump’s summit this week.

“All we want is a fair fight,” said Gaetz, who has accused Twitter of limiting access to conservatives’ accounts in the past. “I guess in a sense if highlighting experiences and instances of bias will result in fewer moderations that present as bias, all the better.”