President Donald Trump will convene a "social media summit" at the White House on Thursday to discuss the influence of big tech and what he perceives as censorship of right-leaning voices. Republican lawmakers and social media figures—including Rep. Matt Gaetz (R–Fla.), Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, and the Twitter personality "CarpeDonktum"—will reportedly be in attendance.
Noticeably absent from the list are executives from the tech giants themselves, who were not invited.
Trump's call to arms comes as some elected officials—many of whom accuse social media platforms of kowtowing to liberals and unfairly scrutinizing conservative perspectives—issue a rallying cry to police online companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) introduced a bill in June that would require the tech behemoths to verify their political neutrality with the Federal Trade Commission every two years. If they failed to do so, they would lose protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which, in turn, would leave them to face greater criminal and civil liability for every post published on their platforms.
Although Hawley says his bill is intended to protect free speech, it would likely have the opposite effect, as social media companies would be forced to crack down on posts that could land them in court absent Section 230 protections.
Few lawmakers expressed support for the proposal in its current form. But Hawley isn't alone in his desire to crack down on online platforms. Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas), once a lover of limited government, grilled Google User Experience Director Maggie Stanphill during a congressional hearing last month over whether the company's leaders had voted or donated to Trump. While the answer to the former was inconclusive, the response to the latter was "no." That's evidence of internal bias, Cruz said, and possibly grounds for government intervention.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R–Tenn.) agrees. During a similar congressional hearing in April—a testament to how hot a topic this has become among Senate Republicans—she compared social media to a "town square," one which needs a sheriff to stop the suppression of conservative thought.
These claims are overblown. Conservative media companies have proven quite adept at leveraging online algorithms to send their stories on a viral streak, using the likes of both Facebook and Twitter to do so. A study released today concludes that a large swath of the popular stories about current Democratic presidential contenders are coming not from "the liberal media," but from right-wing publications. In regards to Kamala Harris (D–Calif.), Sen. Cory Booker (D–N.J.), and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, four out of the five most popular articles about each over the past several weeks were published by conservative sources such as Breitbart, TheBlaze, and Fox News.
That likely won't sway many conservative figures who feel they've been unduly targeted by liberal content moderators. Project Veritas founder James O'Keefe, who also made the cut for Trump's summit, drew headlines in June after he publicly decried YouTube's decision to remove a video he posted that appeared to paint Google as politically biased against Republicans. (It's worth noting that O'Keefe has a history of doctoring videos, and the executive at the center of the video, Jen Gennai, says this is no exception.) Charlie Kirk, the social media giant who has gained over one million Twitter followers in his pursuit of "owning the libs," has been another vocal opponent of social media censorship. "Conservatives being censored on social media is on [sic] the most important issues heading into 2020!" he tweeted in May. "WE WILL NOT BE SILENCED," he continued.
It is true that online figures of a similar (although perhaps more incendiary) ilk—such as right-leaning provocateurs Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones and the left-leaning black nationalist Louis Farrakhan—have been subject to near-complete online exile amid allegations of organized hate. But social media platforms are private companies who can promote whatever values they so choose—an argument that, to a degree, resonates with the TPUSA founder.
"I think there will be some form of equilibrium" between social media companies and conservative Americans, Kirk tells the Associated Press. "Hopefully these companies can self-correct."
What action the tech giants could take to please conservative critics remains unclear. Regardless, Kirk and company would do well to remember that limited government means just that—even when you don't like the outcome.