WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump said Thursday that big tech companies must not be allowed to censor the voices of the American people on social media, even as he hailed conservative critics for using the platforms to get around the "fake news filter."
Trump has weaponized social media to eviscerate opponents and promote himself. He convened Thursday's White House Social Media Summit of like-minded critics of Big Tech, excluding representatives from the very platforms he exploits.
Earlier Thursday, Trump sent a stream of Twitter messages lashing out at social media companies and the press, familiar targets that resonate with his conservative base.
The meeting represented an escalation of Trump's battle with companies like Facebook, Google and even his preferred communications outlet, Twitter. The president has claimed, without evidence, that the companies are "against me" and even suggested U.S. regulators should sue them on grounds of anti-conservative bias.
In remarks to the participants, whom Trump called "online journalists and influencers," Trump said, "You're challenging the media gatekeepers and corporate censors to bring the truth to the American people."
"You communicate directly with our citizens without going through the fake news filter," he said.
Trump signaled tough actions ahead by his administration against big tech companies.
The firms already are under closer scrutiny than ever by regulators and in Congress following a stream of scandals including Facebook's lapses opening the personal data of millions of users to Trump's 2016 campaign, and a bipartisan push for new data privacy legislation has emerged in Congress. Regulators at the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission are pursuing antitrust investigations of Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon.
Trump's volley of Twitter messages Thursday had familiar targets — "certain companies," the press and his Democratic rivals — that have proven resonance with his political base. The president predicted, without foundation, the demise of the press and the social media platforms if he loses to a Democrat in 2020. He hailed himself as "so great looking and smart, a true Stable Genius!"
A "big subject" of the summit would be "the tremendous dishonesty, bias, discrimination and suppression practiced by certain companies," Trump said in his tweets.
"We will not let them get away with it much longer," he said.
Accusations commonly leveled by conservatives against the social media platforms include anti-religious bias, a tilt against abortion foes and censorship of conservative political views.
Trump has made it a priority to reach out to voters who oppose abortion. The anti-abortion groups Live Action and Susan B. Anthony List say Twitter has blocked their advertising. By policy, Twitter prohibits paid ads with content "that is inflammatory or provocative and is likely to evoke a strong negative reaction."
Donald Trump Jr. weighed in on the subject Wednesday, tweeting, "Twitter: We won't allow pro-life groups like (at)LiveAction to run ads on our 'platform' & if you're a conservative we might ban you for 1st Amendment protected speech that we arbitrarily deem 'offensive.'"
Response to accusations
While some Silicon Valley company executives may lean liberal, they have asserted that their products are without political bias.
Representatives for Facebook, Google and Twitter have declined to comment specifically on the White House meeting. The Internet Association, the industry's major trade group representing Facebook, Google and dozens of other companies, said online platforms "are the best tool for promoting voices from all political perspectives in history."
"Internet companies are not biased against any political ideology, and conservative voices in particular have used social media to great effect," the group's president Michael Beckerman said in a statement Thursday. "Internet companies depend upon their users' trust from across the political spectrum to grow and succeed."
Facebook has banned extremist figures such as Alex Jones of Infowars and Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. Twitter has banned hate speech on the basis of someone's race, gender and other categories. Twitter broadened its policy this week to include banning language that dehumanizes others based on religion, and the company said it may also ban similar language aimed at other groups, such as those defined by gender, race and sexual orientation.
"I've never seen evidence of tech firm bias against conservatives," said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., who has been sharply critical of the big companies for reasons of their market dominance and effect on competition. He leads a House Judiciary subcommittee that has opened a bipartisan probe into the tech giants' market conduct.
"If someone wants to show me some empirical data, instead of some alt-right member's paranoid claims, I'd appreciate it," Cicilline said in a statement Wednesday.
Trump has an estimated 61 million followers on Twitter and uses the platform almost daily to speak directly to them. He has a knack for tweeting outrageous, divisive or tongue-in-cheek missives that spur frenzied reactions from the mainstream press.
At the same time, Trump has accused Twitter, without evidence, of making it "very hard for people to join me" and "very much harder for me to get out the message."