In May 2019, a new White House campaign to collect data on social media bias is raising free speech and privacy alarms – and the Trump administration has been far less than transparent about the project’s purpose or the policies around it in the weeks since.
“The White House wants to hear from all Americans — regardless of their political leanings — if they have been impacted by bias on social media platforms,” spokesman Judd Deere told the Washington Post, in a statement.
While it’s no secret that open government isn’t a priority at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in this administration, it is still profoundly disappointing to see any White House use taxpayer resources to create and promote an online form to gather examples of “censorship” on social media from the public and then convene a summit transparently designed to further advance an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory.
The public’s privacy rights are unfortunately also relevant: in a letter to Congress, the Electronic Privacy Information Center said they believe the White House’s “social bias” online form broke federal privacy law, arguing that requiring the public to provide names and denying non-citizens from submitting responses was unconstitutional and calling for the website to be shut down.
As I told Vice News, it’s not at all clear what the White House’s form feeds into, beyond creating a biased set of data to support the President’s and the Republican party’s conspiracy theory about about people having their viewpoints censored by a private technology company based upon their politics.
Even putting aside privacy and First Amendment concerns, the opacity about this website, its purpose, and process by which it was developed is intensely symbolic of the Trump administration’s approach to public engagement and governance in general: this White House made no effort to use its bully pulpit to convene the public around a new national action plan for open government responsive to the many challenges that confront the United States of America and democracies around the world.)
Unfortunately, a bad situation now appears to be getting worse: Today, the Washington Post reported that the White House will host a “social media summit” on July 11 – but wouldn’t tell the paper who’s coming.
As Tony Romm reported for the Post, neither the White House nor the President nor the officials who are appointed to advise the commander-in-chief have shown the public any evidence of systemic anti-conservative bias on social media.
Presumeably, the biased data collected on the (now shuttered) online form asking for examples of bias will be featured at the summit as evidence and used by President Trump and Fox News to disinform the public.
How an illiberal White House is using official power to “work the refs”
Putting transparency, privacy, the void of official evidence, and how the law that governs online content moderation work aside: it’s worth questioning whether the people attending this White House summit are really “conservative critics,” as the Post asserted, and why the Trump administration is convening them. On this count, author Peter Singer offers insight:
The evidence-less claims of conservative bias of social media are best understood with the sports metaphor of “working the referees”
— Peter W. Singer (@peterwsinger) July 2, 2019
Beyond the unspoken goals of the event, it’s worth noting that several of the attendees named by the Post have embraced nationalism, with a populist and (let’s be honest) xenophobic, racist vein running through it. By way of contrast, constitutional conservatives believe in limited government, including the notion that private companies can set and enforce their own terms of service for use of their platforms, from telecom companies that run cable TV networks to tech companies that run social media services.
Years in to the Republican party turning to illiberalism under Trump, moving away from conservative principles in favor of ethno-nationalism and whatever Trump tweets, the papers of record are still reporting on “conservatives,” as if that label accurately describes a party that reflects Presidents Reagan or Bush’s worldviews instead of one undermining American democracy.
This isn’t a minor flaw: if you’re trying to read the tea leaves in DC about where policy is going, from what the White House will do, or regulators, or Congress) distinguishing nationalists from constitutional conservatives is important, and difficult.
Ideological descriptors need to have meaning, and while the Washington Post is continuing to do the public an immense service by informing us when the taxpayer-funded communications staff at 1600 Pennsylvania do not, I hope its editors will consider dropping the “conservative” label and instead report on illiberal conspiracists for what they are.
After all, when the President of the United States embraces illiberalism and promotes disinformation, nationalism and xenophobia on his personal social media account, the political and governance context for his activity is different from past decades.