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White House social media summit not a ‘one-and-done,’ Trump’s allies say

A Trump tweet and a poster defining "shadow banning" were on display at Thursday's White House social media summit. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s “social media summit” probably marks the beginning, not the end, of Silicon Valley’s political headaches, opening the door for the White House and its conservative allies to intensify their attacks on Facebook, Google and Twitter over allegations that they exhibit political bias.

Trump coupled his complaints about the tech industry — delivered Thursday in front of more than 200 of his closest online allies — with a promise to summon top tech executives to Washington in the coming weeks and a threat to unveil new regulations targeting the way social media sites moderate content.

“Something is going to be done,” Trump told reporters Friday, blasting the companies as “absolutely, in my opinion, 100 percent crooked.”

Exiting the summit, some conservatives also pledged to be even more vigilant, vocal and aggressive about what they perceive as attempts by Facebook, Google and Twitter to silence their voices, threatening continued clashes between the tech industry and its critics ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

“It draws more people’s attention to the issue . . . which will make it impossible for the tech companies to ignore this,” said Charlie Kirk, the executive director of Turning Point USA, a conservative student group.

Trump convened the social media summit Thursday after months of attacks on Silicon Valley claiming that major tech giants are biased against conservatives. At times, the president even has suggested that Google and its peers seek to influence federal elections, threatening regulation in response.

But Trump has not provided evidence of his claims of election interference, and some of the examples of bias he has cited have been debunked by experts. Facebook, Google and Twitter have said previously that politics do not influence their decisions about what content they allow or remove from their sites. All three declined to comment for this article.

On Friday, Trump suggested that he had clashed with one of the social-networking companies, telling reporters he had “something happen this morning” but declining to provide details.

The allegations of social media bias will receive another airing next week, when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) convenes a hearing where Google representatives are expected to testify. And the companies are likely to face another confrontation with their conservative critics soon, given Trump’s interest in bringing them to the White House for a meeting. Facebook, Google and Twitter were not invited to Thursday’s gathering.

“It wasn’t totally clear what he’s going to do, but the impression was he wants to have a meeting, and at this meeting, he’s going to have both sides,” said Allen Estrin, a co-founder of PragerU, who attended the summit. An online outfit that makes videos about political issues viewed by millions of people, PragerU is locked in a legal war with Google over the search giant’s content-moderation decisions.

Trump did not say if he would require the chief executives of Facebook, Google and Twitter to appear at his upcoming meeting, and a White House spokesman declined to comment Friday on the nature and timing of such a follow-up conversation. So far, the companies have not received formal invitations, according to two sources familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak on the record.

In September, though, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai generally agreed during a meeting with the president’s aides to attend a “roundtable with the President and other internet stakeholders,” the White House said at the time. The commitment came as Pichai sought to tamp down concerns in Washington that the company unfairly targets conservatives. The Google executive later joined a meeting with Trump and other business leaders in December focused on issues including trade.

Trump previously met with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in a private meeting where the president grumbled about his follower count, The Washington Post reported.

The White House also declined to elaborate on Trump’s early threat of regulation. Addressing the summit, the president said he is “directing my administration to explore all regulatory and legislative solutions to protect free speech.”

“I think that’s something that needs to be done,” said Jon Miller, who hosts the show “White House Brief” for Blaze TV, founded by Glenn Beck. “It’s exploratory, he’s looking at the options, and that’s the first step to solving any problem.”

Trump’s comments still sparked some early concern within the tech industry. “I think this is more about politics than law and policy,” said Matt Schruers, the chief operating officer at the Computer & Communications Industry Association, a Washington-based trade group for companies including Facebook and Google. “The issue plays well politically, and so it will continue to receive political attention."

But, Schruers said, there are free-speech concerns whenever the government seeks to regulate or try to shape online expression: “It is not the White House’s role to attempt to work the refs to obtain favorable outcomes on content moderation,” he said.

Some of the White House’s allies this week proposed that Washington respond to allegations of conservative bias by seeking to weaken one of Silicon Valley’s most prized legal shields. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act spares tech companies — which fight vigorously to defend it — from lawsuits over what their users post online, while granting them a legal green light to moderate their platforms without facing liability. Speaking at the summit, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) appeared to blast the legal protections as “special deals from government.”

Once the president concluded his remarks, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) told attendees that she plans to begin work next week on a special task force to study broader regulation of Silicon Valley, including issues related to privacy and competition.

“I don’t think this was a one-and-done for him,” she said of Trump’s interest in the industry. “It was an opening for what he [intends] to do over the next couple months.”