Trump set to host controversial social media summit

The White House on Thursday will convene a group of online conspiracy theorists and agitated tech critics for what the White House is calling a “social media summit” focused on allegations that the country’s largest tech giants routinely censor conservative voices. 

The guest list includes a number of controversial figures — some of whom have been banned from social media for violating their policies and allege unfair treatment by top companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter. And it will feature remarks from President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want NYT in the White House Veterans group backs lawsuits to halt Trump's use of military funding for border wall Schiff punches back after GOP censure resolution fails MORE, a prolific user of social media, who kicked off Thursday by warning he would not let companies “get away” with “tremendous dishonesty, bias, discrimination and suppression.” 

Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies have not been invited to the event. Some estimates have put the guest list at around 100, but the White House had not offered a list of attendees by Thursday morning.

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Guests will include a host of right-wing personalities as well as some GOP lawmakers, including Rep. Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzLawmakers from both sides of the aisle mourn Cummings The Hill's Morning Report - Tempers boil over at the White House Schiff says committees will eventually make impeachment inquiry transcripts public MORE (Fla.) and Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnGraham, Van Hollen introduce Turkey sanctions bill Lawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show GOP senators say Erdoğan White House invitation should be revoked MORE (Tenn.), both of whom have been outspoken about their concerns over conservatives on social media. Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyZuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount US ban on China tech giant faces uncertainty a month out Trump judicial nominee delayed amid GOP pushback MORE (R-Mo.) and Rep. Dan CrenshawDaniel CrenshawGeorge Conway hits Republicans for not saying Trump's name while criticizing policy The absurdity of President Trump picking the Democratic nominee Missouri Republican wins annual craft brewing competition for lawmakers MORE (R-Texas) will also attend.

Crenshaw shortly before the event said he would be appearing on a panel to talk about freedom of speech online.

"I want to protect these companies because I think they do a lot of good," Crenshaw said, "And I protect them by criticizing them and saying, 'Protect free speech as we understand it as Americans.'"

 

The summit comes after the White House earlier this year launched a tool encouraging social media users to report instances of potential political bias on the platforms. It marks the president’s most aggressive and public broadside against social media companies he has accused of working against him.

Top tech companies have repeatedly denied all allegations of bias, insisting political affiliation does not factor into their decision making. Social media experts say there is little evidence to substantiate claims around anti-conservative bias beyond individual anecdotes.

The controversial guest list offers ammunition for critics who have accused the White House of buddying up with unsavory allies, including a radio show host who regularly promotes the "QAnon" conspiracy theory and a right-wing personality who most recently incited a social media firestorm by tweeting that Democratic presidential candidate Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisClinton attacks on Gabbard become flashpoint in presidential race Poll: Biden holds 10-point lead nationally over Warren Trump declines to participate in Weather Channel 2020 climate change special MORE, a California senator, is not “American black.” The president’s son Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want NYT in the White House Romney earns rants and raves for secret Twitter name DOJ: McGahn, Trump Jr. did not testify before Mueller grand jury MORE, who is heavily involved in right-wing online communities, shared the social media post. 

“It's not that good when you're having a summit and you don't include the social media platforms, and you start with a notion that presumes bias when my sense is the bias in social media companies is to make money," Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerHillicon Valley: Facebook removes Russian, Iranian accounts trying to interfere in 2020 | Zuckerberg on public relations blitz | Uncertainty over Huawei ban one month out Zuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount Senate Democrats want Warren to talk costs on 'Medicare for All' MORE (D-Va.) told The Hill on Wednesday.

“Some of the people who ... are invited are the very folks who are misusing social media,” he added.

Progressive groups have railed against the event, and an array of tech groups in a letter on Thursday morning, anticipating some discussion of potential policy remedies to the alleged bias issue, defended tech’s prized legal shield, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. 

Gaetz told The Hill he anticipated he would be "chatting with some folks" about reforming Section 230, an issue he said he has been working with the White House on "for a while."

Section 230 prevents online companies from being held liable for the content posted by their users. Top Senate Republicans have threatened to chip away at Section 230, saying the platforms should not be given a "sweetheart deal" if they censor right-wing voices.

"I have strong views regarding the need to reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to require some transparency in exchange for the liability protections that technology platforms enjoy," Gaetz said, adding that he believed legislation by Hawley has the "right approach."

Hawley last month introduced a bill that would require the top companies to submit to audits proving they are politically "neutral" before receiving Section 230 immunity, a proposal he's likely to tout at the summit.

The bill has provoked strong opposition from tech groups.

"Section 230 reform poses a substantial risk of failing to address policymakers’ concerns and harming the Internet overall," the groups, including TechFreedom and the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, wrote in the letter. 

Summit guests who spoke to The Hill ahead of the event said they hoped to discuss personal anecdotes about times their posts have been removed or failed to get the engagement they hoped for. Some of them had submitted complaints through the White House’s online tool. 

Though some guests received their invitations as far back as three weeks ago, many of them got the official White House invite in their email inbox on Tuesday, leaving them scrambling to book flights and road trips to Washington. 

Bill Ottman, the CEO of Minds.com — a social media platform with 2 million users that brands itself as a free speech alternative to larger networks — drove into town with another guest, journalist Tim Pool, on Wednesday after they received their invites the day before. 

Ottman said he got the invite after laying out his vision for transparent and open social media networks in a letter to the White House.

Another attendee, James O’Keefe — the founder of the right-wing advocacy group Project Veritas that has been panned for selectively editing some videos in order to promote conservative narratives — told The Hill he was invited to the event after his organization released an investigation into Google last month. 

The Project Veritas segment features an undercover video of Jen Gennai, a Google executive, talking about mistakes the company made in 2016 that it is trying to avoid in 2020.

“We’re ... training our algorithms, if 2016 happened again, would we have, would the outcome be different?” Gennai can be heard saying in the video.

Project Veritas painted the recording as evidence of liberal bias, but Gennai responded saying that the group “selectively edited and spliced the video to distort my words and the actions of my employer.”

Not all of the attendees heading to the White House are hoping to see action from the White House or from Congress. Rob Bluey, a conservative writer and the vice president for communications at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, told The Hill he’s hoping to encourage the audience to opt for market pressure rather than government regulation.

“I really hope that we can have a conversation about solutions and I hope that conversation takes us in the direction of looking for ways that we can maybe work together collaboratively and apply some market pressure to force changes at social media companies, rather than looking to the government for solutions,” Bluey said. “I am fully and 100 percent opposed to any kind of government action or regulation, I think that’s a mistake and I know that some conservatives are clamoring for that.” 

Other attendees are also hoping to inject some alternative viewpoints into the mix. Pool told The Hill he’s hoping to emphasize that people on the left, including activists, are also often affected by online censorship.

Pool said many of the attendees will be “conservatives who believe they’re being censored” but “mistake legitimate and algorithmic moderation as censorship.” 

He wants to emphasize that “it’s not always censorship, people should calm down a little bit, and sometimes there are left-wing individuals who challenge the establishment who are censored as well.” 

Trump is scheduled to make remarks at the event late Thursday afternoon. 

—Updated at 3:24 p.m.