Tomorrow, President Trump will convene a social media summit on anti-conservative bias—lacking the leaders of the biggest social media companies and prominent conservatives but featuring plenty of the president’s biggest fans. Trump, who has unprecedented reach on Twitter, has long claimed that the platform is biased against him and he’s made similar claims about Facebook, which was instrumental to the success of his presidential campaign. The president’s evidence is largely based on complaints by far-right commentators, conspiracy theorists, and white supremacists who have been disciplined by or banned from the platforms.
The White House has yet to release a full list of attendees. But the summit appears to be packed with Trump supporters, based on those who have confirmed that they got an invite. They include YourVoice America talk show host Bill Mitchell, and a popular pro-Trump meme creator who goes by the moniker Carpe Donktum. (“Hey @instagram & @facebook FUCK YOU,” Donktum tweeted in May.) Government officials include Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz, an ardent Trump supporter (except on climate change issues) and strong Silicon Valley critic, who alleges that Twitter has targeted him and other conservatives.
Some confirmed attendees are especially controversial, such as political cartoonist Ben Garrison, who’s been criticized by the Anti-Defamation League for a 2017 drawing that depicts retired Army generals H.R. McMaster and David Petraeus as puppets controlled by Jewish interests. (Update: Garrison appears to have been subsequently disinvited.)
And it doesn’t appear that tech industry executives will be present to answer charges of bias. A rep for Facebook confirmed to Fast Company that it has not been invited to the summit. Twitter and Google have also reportedly been left out. (Twitter declined comment and Google has not replied to my inquiry.)
Also missing in action will be plenty of conservatives who disagree with the president’s premise. “There’s no systemic conspiracy of bias in Silicon Valley,” says William Upton, a DC operative who worked for Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform and led the “religious liberty” political action committee Campaign for American Principles. Sure, people in the tech industry lean liberal, he says, but he doesn’t see evidence of them squelching conservative users or ideas as a result. “You actually hear that from surveys, which is insane,” says Upton.
“This is not some symposium. It’s an event to bring attention to this issue to benefit the President’s reelection campaign,” says James Pethokoukis, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank. He has been a steady critic of anti-conservative bias claims, saying that they are based on a handful of anecdotes that don’t stand up to scrutiny.
Like Upton, Pethokoukis makes a distinction between Silicon Valley culture and practice, seeing slip-ups rather than conspiracies. “I think that you have people who work in the technology companies who see the world differently than people on the right do, and therefore that causes them to make a content moderation decision that may harm social media accounts on the right for some temporarily, on a case-by-case basis,” he says. “I think that’s probably happened, though usually these are temporary suspensions.”
Permanent suspensions tend to be reserved for more provocative posters, such as InfoWars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and self-described “pro-White Christian American” politician Paul Nehlen. “[They] have gotten swept up and suddenly become part of the right rather than what I think they are. They’re white supremacists,” says Pethokoukis. Both were banned from Facebook in May, along with five other members including former Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and radical Muslim preacher Louis Farrakhan. (President Trump criticized the “censorship of AMERICAN CITIZENS on social media platforms” at the time.) Jones and InfoWars have also been banned from Twitter and other prominent online platforms, including YouTube.
These people are far from the bulk of conservatism, says Upton, who now works as director of outreach and communications for Lincoln Network, a Republican- and Libertarian-leaning organization that promotes dialogue between government and the tech industry. “At the end of the day, Alex Jones is a clown show,” he says.
Lincoln Network does accuse big tech companies of having an anti-conservative bias in the workplace, which, it says, stifles “viewpoint diversity.” The claims are based on surveys of tech workers conducted in early 2018 and early 2019.
They are not alone. “What big tech has wound up doing, in significant part because of pressure from the woke vanguard outside and especially inside tech companies, is not just pursuing ‘viewpoint discrimination’ on an ‘ethical’ basis but actually arrogating the public square to itself, usurping it by relocating it,” says James Poulos,” executive editor of The American Mind.
‘They aren’t actually as bad as you think they are’
Still, Upton says conservatives can handle some cultural bias at tech firms. “Right now they’re leaning a little bit to the left,” he says. “They aren’t actually as bad as you think they are. And we can win them over.”
But Silicon Valley is doing a bad job winning over its critics, says Zach Graves, head of policy at Lincoln Network, because tech focuses its outreach to mainstream establishment conservatives like the Cato Institute. “A lot of the conservative base only hears from people saying, ‘Yeah, Silicon Valley is a bunch of liberals and they’re trying to silence conservative voices and maybe even to rig the 2020 election.'”
That’s one of the charges in a new report from right-wing investigative organization Project Veritas, which has gained traction in circles like quarantined Reddit group r/The_Donald. (Project Veritas founder and CEO James O’Keefe, a provocateur who has been criticized for selectively editing videos to misrepresent the context of conversations, confirms he has been invited to the White House’s social media summit.)
Its latest blockbuster, from June 24, claims that Google, including its YouTube division, is manipulating AI algorithms and recommendations to push results to the left. The 25-minute video features an interview with a purported Google employee, company documents about machine learning practices, and snippets of an interview with Jen Gennai, Google’s head of Responsible Innovation.
“We’re also training our algorithms if 2016 happened again, would we have, would the outcome be different?” says Gennai. The far-right interprets this as an effort to throw the election to the Democrats, but others see her words as just shorthand for protecting against the well-documented disinformation and manipulation campaigns that marred the last presidential run. “I think [it] is very questionable in how it was edited,” says Graves of the Project Veritas video.
Also provocative was the charge by the purported Google employee that YouTube deliberately “de-ranked” recommended videos by journalists and commentators popular on the right, including Dave Rubin, and Tim Pool.
Responding to the report, Pool expressed alarm at the charges of bias at Google, but he also dug deep into his YouTube analytics. “While there may be some censorship or otherwise, I do not believe the ultimate goal is to…eliminate my channel or cause us overt harm for the most part,” he says.
In fact, Pool (who was invited to the summit) said that both of his YouTube channels continue to grow, with the main channel up 84.9% in viewership and 150% in subscriptions. “Maybe it’s true they actually said they want to suppress my content, but my views are way, way up and, yes, my views are being recommended to new people,” he said.