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 TrumpCheney says a lot of GOP lawmakers have privately encouraged her fight against Trump Republicans criticizing Afghan refugees face risks DeVos says 'principles have been overtaken by personalities' in GOP 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.
Guests will include a host of right-wing personalities as well as some GOP lawmakers, including Rep. Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzBipartisan senators to hold hearing on 'toxic conservatorships' amid Britney Spears controversy Eric Trump lawyer in New York attorney general's fraud case quits Republicans keep distance from 'Justice for J6' rally MORE (Fla.) and Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnBig Tech should pay for damaging mental health Facebook to testify in Senate after report finds Instagram harms mental health House Oversight Democrat presses Facebook for 'failure' to protect users MORE (Tenn.), both of whom have been outspoken about their concerns over conservatives on social media. Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleySchumer moves to break GOP blockade on Biden's State picks Dems punch back over GOP holdup of Biden SBA nominee DHS chief 'horrified' by images at border MORE (R-Mo.) and Rep. Dan CrenshawDaniel CrenshawGOP seeks Biden referendum over vaccine mandates The Memo: Biden comes out punching on COVID-19 The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by AT&T - Texas's near abortion ban takes effect 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 HarrisBiden, Harris push big lie about Border Patrol Two 'View' hosts test positive for coronavirus ahead of Harris interview Rep. Karen Bass to run for mayor of Los Angeles: report MORE, a California senator, is not “American black.” The president’s son Donald Trump Jr.Don TrumpHow Trump uses fundraising emails to remain undisputed leader of the GOP Donald Trump Jr. joins Cameo Book claims Trump family members were 'inappropriately' close with Secret Service agents 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 WarnerPanic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda Democrats surprised, caught off guard by 'framework' deal Schumer announces Senate-House deal on tax 'framework' for .5T package 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.