The White House has invited tech giants including Facebook, Google and Twitter to a discussion Friday about the rise of violent online extremism, one of the Trump administration’s first major engagements on the issue despite years of warnings that racial and ethnic animus on social media is linked to some of the country’s deadliest attacks.
But President Trump’s own attendance isn’t certain — he’s scheduled to be in New York raising campaign cash — leaving some to question the sincerity of the effort after months during which Trump has chastised social-media companies as his political foes.
“Instead of worrying about claims of bias against Republicans, the White House should be putting their energy [toward] worrying about the online extremism that’s killing Americans,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat who represents a portion of Silicon Valley, who described the meeting as an important first step.
The White House declined to comment for this story.
The Friday event — to be held behind closed doors — aims to gauge how some of Silicon Valley’s top companies spot and remove posts, photos and videos that threaten to radicalize users and spur real-world violence, according to two people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to speak on the record.
Among companies invited to attend are Facebook, Google and Twitter along with Microsoft, Reddit and one of the industry’s major lobbying organizations, the Internet Association, the sources said. Previously, White House spokesman Judd Deere described the affair as “staff-led” with “senior administration officials along with representatives of a range of companies," but declined to provide additional details.
Each of the companies declined to comment on whether they had been invited or would attend.
For Washington and Silicon Valley alike, online extremism represents a rising digital scourge: Facebook alone reported earlier this year that it took action against 6.4 million pieces of terrorist content, 33.6 million instances of violent or graphic content and 4 million posts, photos or videos related to hate speech, all increases from the previous quarter.
But the weaponization of social-media sites again appeared in sharp relief last weekend: Moments before last weekend’s shooting in El Paso, the alleged attacker is believed to have posted a manifesto attacking Hispanic people on 8chan, an anonymous message forum that has become a breeding ground for hate speech and hoaxes.
In response, Trump pledged to “do something about” online extremism. Speaking on Monday, he tasked the Justice Department to “work in partnership with local state and federal agencies, as well as social media companies, to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike."
Trump, however, is scheduled to be in the Hamptons holding a series of fundraisers. A spokesman declined to say if he’d engage directly in the White House gathering.
Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, still described the meeting as “useful." But, he added: “It would send a much stronger signal if the president demonstrated his personal commitment by being present. We almost have a state of emergency on hate, and it merits the president’s full focus.”
For years, the Trump administration had angered experts and lawmakers for failing to mount a more aggressive response to a series of earlier, deadly attacks motivated by online hate — from the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 to the attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh last year.
The tensions came to a head again in May, when the United States declined to sign an international pledge that committed other countries and tech giants to reduce the spread of violent content online. The White House raised concerns that the so-called Christchurch Call, named after the New Zealand city where a gunman opened fire on two mosques, would clash with the First Amendment’s protections of free speech, even though many others signed it.
“It was a sign of solidarity against this white supremacist bile, this hate speech, and it was a mistake not to join it,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Instead, Trump has focused much of his attention in recent months on calling out Facebook, Google and Twitter for censoring conservatives online — charges that those companies routinely deny. The president even held a full summit focused on allegations of political bias featuring more than 200 participants at the White House last month, an effort that drew sharp condemnation from lawmakers and experts who felt Trump had endorsed the controversial, incendiary rhetoric of some of his most ardent online supporters.
“Hopefully this White House meeting won’t be like the last social media summit and turn into conservative grievance echo chamber,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement. "But I won’t hold my breath.”