The Memo: Trump takes aim at tech giants

President TrumpDonald John TrumpOver 100 lawmakers consistently voted against chemical safeguards: study CNN's Anderson Cooper unloads on Trump Jr. for spreading 'idiotic' conspiracy theories about him Cohn: Jamie Dimon would be 'phenomenal' president MORE twice hit out at tech giants on Tuesday, raising the stakes for companies that are already in the political firing line.

In early morning tweets, Trump contended that “Google search results for ‘Trump News’ shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake News Media. In other words, they have it RIGGED.”

He added: “Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good.”

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Later in the day, briefly addressing the media at an Oval Office meeting with FIFA President Gianni Infantino, Trump broadened his critique saying, “I think that Google and Twitter and Facebook, they’re really treading on very, very troubled territory. And they have to be careful.”

Google moved swiftly to push back on the president’s tweets. A statement from the search giant said in part: "Search is not used to set a political agenda and we don't bias our results toward any political ideology ... We never rank search results to manipulate political sentiment."

Even so, Trump’s words will cause unease in Silicon Valley.

Some tech leaders acknowledge they are under increasing pressure on various fronts.

They have been buffeted by several controversies, from Russia’s apparent use of deceptive Facebook accounts during the 2016 presidential election campaign to the question of whether controversial users such as Alex Jones of Infowars should be banned from social media platforms.

The tech companies also make inviting targets for both major political parties, in different ways: Democrats are suspicious of the companies’ vast wealth and corporate power; Republicans fret that the broadly liberal ideological complexion of the tech community leaves the GOP, and conservatives more generally, vulnerable to bias.

Tim Groeling, a professor of communications at UCLA, said some of those concerns are valid.

“There is a legitimate concern underlying this, which people on the left and the right should be concerned about, which is the relatively huge power over the public marketplace of ideas that these unregulated companies have,” Groeling said. “This is the kind of power in the media we haven’t had since the days of the Big Three television networks.”

Groeling added that there were particular challenges when it came to matters like search functions and algorithms.

“When people aren’t shown search results, they don’t know what they don’t know,” he said. “People are very vulnerable on this.”

Trump’s early morning tweets appeared to be based on a story that first surfaced on a conservative site, PJ Media, claiming that “96 percent of Google Search Results for ‘Trump’ News Are from Liberal Media Outlets.”

That story was in turn retweeted by Lou Dobbs, of Fox Business Network, whom the president has praised and who is said to talk to Trump regularly.

There has been nothing to corroborate the charge that Google is putting its thumb on the scales on the liberal side. Some experts in the field expressed sympathy for the predicament in which the tech companies find themselves.

“Conservatives have amped up their criticisms of the large tech firms,” said Darrell West, the founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. “They claim they are biased against conservatives but it shows how difficult a situation these businesses face. People want them to crack down on things they don’t like but it’s a polarized political environment — what you dislike is not what someone else dislikes.”

Tech leaders have sought to address some of those concerns without appearing too self-flagellating.

When Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergChina may be copying Facebook to build an intelligence weapon Facebook announces verification to images and video on platform Hillicon Valley: North Korean IT firm hit with sanctions | Zuckerberg says Facebook better prepared for midterms | Big win for privacy advocates in Europe | Bezos launches B fund to help children, homeless MORE testified before Congress for the first time in April, he expressed regret that he had not done more to prevent “tools from being used for harm.”

Into that category, he placed “fake news, foreign interference in elections and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy.”

At the same time, however, Zuckerberg was adamant in his opposition to increased regulation of his company.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey gave an interview to CNN earlier this month in which he said he would “fully admit” that the overall bias of his company’s employees was “more left-leaning.”

But he added: “The real question behind the question is, are we doing something according to political ideology or viewpoints? And we are not. Period.”

Dorsey’s comments seemed aimed, at least in part, at rebutting conservative charges that Twitter was engaged in “shadow banning” some prominent right-wing voices. Twitter denies it does this.

The stage is now set for Dorsey and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Sept. 5. That will be the most-watched tech testimony since Zuckerberg’s.

Dorsey will also testify that same day before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where GOP lawmakers have questions about Twitter’s algorithms and content monitoring.

The Trump administration has made clear the tech giants are in its sights.

Larry Kudlow, the president’s economic adviser, was asked by reporters on Tuesday whether Google itself faced government regulation.

“We’re taking a look at it,” he replied.

There was no word on what measures he or Trump might have in mind.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.