The first ever Social Media Summit at the White House quietly came and went on Thursday behind closed doors, but information about what actually happened has been continuing to leak. “Those who attended were treated to what [an attendee] described as a ‘circus show,’ CNN Business reported. So what was wrong—both with the premise of the entire event and with how it was carried out? Here’s a closer look at what worked and what didn’t.
The event was designed as an indirect response to far-right accusations that major social media outlets were censoring them because of their views. When invites began to be sent out, however, people on both sides of the aisle quickly became skeptical. The group of influencers who were invited reportedly didn’t include anyone who has actually been banned from any major social media platform. “The people that are actually getting censored get ignored,” noted Owen Shroyer, a reporter at InfoWars. (InfoWars has been banned from Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube for hate speech and other Terms of Service violations.) However, this is not to say that all the attendees were simply typical, vanilla social media influencers. Notable guests included Bill Mitchell, a major supporter of the QAnon extremist conspiracy theory; and Ali Alexander (AKA Ali Akbar), a right-wing activist who recently said that presidential candidate Kamala Harris wasn’t “an American Black.”
Just came from the White House Social Media Summit where I had chance to stand alongside @realDonaldTrump and talk about why we need to stop Big Tech from discriminating against conservatives #Section230 #SocialMediaSummit pic.twitter.com/LJ0Ig7GWDo
— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) July 11, 2019
“They shouldn’t discriminate, they shouldn’t censor, they shouldn’t shut us down,” said Sen. Josh Hawley during the summit as Trump looked on approvingly. Hawley, a vocal critic of social media platforms, accused companies like Facebook and Twitter of violating the First Amendment by removing conservative posts and accounts. Hate speech and incitement of violence, reasons often cited in the removal of content, are not protected under the amendment.
However, let’s say for a moment that these concerns of bias and censorship have some basis in reality and that conservatives are really being silenced on social media. If this is the case, it requires real action and not a summit that is basically an echo chamber. Listening to Senator Hawley work the crowd in that room, it’s clear that everyone agrees and that he’s simply trying to rile them up. “You and I know that that’s not true,” he says. “You and I know the truth.” What may be seen as the truth by everyone in the room might be blatantly false in the larger world, or it might be just as true, but either way building up resentment towards the media isn’t going to do anything.
Each of you is fulfilling a vital role in our nation – you are challenging the media gatekeepers and the corporate censors to bring the facts straight to the American People. Together, you reach more people than any television broadcast, BY FAR! #SocialMediaSummit pic.twitter.com/iWePOOhLgp
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 12, 2019
President Trump told the audience that he will speak with “representatives of the major social media platforms” at the White House over the next month. The platforms declined requests for comment from multiple news organizations. If these meetings do pan out, it will be fascinating to see how this issue develops and whether it leads to penalties for companies like Twitter and Facebook. This is an important free speech issue to keep an eye on.