A large collection of right-wing opinionators, meme-makers, and pundits joined President Trump and a handful of lawmakers at the White House yesterday for a social media summit to discuss the supposed “bias” that platforms such as Twitter, Google, and Facebook have against conservative voices.
In a series of tweets prior to the meeting, Trump said the summit would be “very big and very important.
The president, who regularly posts messages covered by most media outlets to his 61.9 million Twitter followers, 13.7 million Instagram followers, and 25.6 million Facebook followers, added that a “big subject … will be the tremendous dishonesty, bias, discrimination, and suppression practiced by certain companies.”
“We will not let them get away with it much longer,” he added.
In prepared remarks capping off Thursday’s summit, Trump called the event “historic,” saying the influencers present, many of whom are best known for spreading conspiracy theories, were “fulfilling a vital role in our nation, challenging the media gatekeepers” to talk directly to the American people.
“The crap you think of is unbelievable,” he added, calling the social media firms “disgraceful” and saying, “We’re not going to be silenced.”
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), chair of the antitrust subcommittee in the House, said in a statement about the summit that he had no evidence of tech firm bias against conservatives. “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 the meantime, it would be great if President Trump would get serious about antitrust.”
Sen. Mark Warner (D-V.A.) also lambasted the event, asking, “Instead of complaining that Internet trolls and conspiracy peddlers aren’t getting as many retweets these days, what if the President of the United States used his platform to lead and address the real challenges we face regarding social media?” Warner discussed several bills he sponsored or cosponsored that would deal with Russian interference, disinformation, and the use of consumers’ private data by tech firms.
The list of more than 150 attendees included Internet and media personalities as well as Republican lawmakers, but representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google were not invited.
Among those present was Charlie Kirk, founder of right-wing student group Turning Point USA. The day before the summit, Kirk ran an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for changes to the law that he claimed would prevent conservative voices from “being shadow-banned, throttled, muted, and outright censored online.”
One of the key culprits, Kirk said, is section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. “Social media companies have leveraged Section 230 to great effect, and astounding profits, by claiming they are platforms—not publishers—thereby avoiding under the law billions of dollars in potential copyright infringement and libel lawsuits,” Kirk wrote.
“Section 230” has recently become a rallying cry du jour among the far right. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who was among the lawmakers present at the summit, recently introduced legislation seeking to amend the law, revoking “the immunity big tech companies receive under Section 230 unless they submit to an external audit that proves by clear and convincing evidence that their algorithms and content-removal practices are politically neutral.”
The idea of Section 230 reform has also drawn support from Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), as well as support in the house from Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.).
Nor are the Republicans alone. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in an April interview that section 230 is “a gift” to the tech firms, “and I don’t think they are treating it with the respect that they should, and so I think that could be a question mark and in jeopardy.”
However, the actual law has nothing to do with neutrality, and the current campaign to reform it is drawing opposition from both conservative and progressive sources.
The key part of § 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 says:
No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.
In 23 years of practice, this has been interpreted and recognized as something of a safe harbor provision. You, the platform that hosts content generated by other sources and users, are not considered the originator of that content.
That idea is what has made the rise of social media—including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Yelp, YouTube, and basically any other platform you can think of that hosts user-generated content—possible.
A coalition of conservative groups on Wednesday sent a letter to House and Senate leadership asking Congress to leave the law alone.
“Social media has empowered an explosion of opinionated speech online,” they wrote. “These new venues for conservative speech are made possible by section 230.”
“Weakening or removing section 230 would strengthen the hand of government to silence speech it dislikes,” the letter continues. “Congress must defend section 230. Without these protections, free speech and American entrepreneurialism would be irreparably harmed.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a liberal who helped author the 1996 law, agrees. “Without protections, all online media would face an onslaught of bad-faith lawsuits and pressure campaigns from the powerful in an effort to silence their critics,” he said in a May statement. “Calls for government regulation of online speech and the business practices of private corporations run counter to everything conservatives claim to believe.”
Section 230 was revised in 2018 when Congress approved the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which President Trump later signed into law. The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a lawsuit shortly after, saying the law constitutes “the most comprehensive censorship of Internet speech in America in the last 20 years.”
(The suit was dismissed when a judge found the EFF and other plaintiffs in the case did not have standing; the organization has appealed.)
The EFF also opposes Hawley’s bill, calling it “clearly unconstitutional.”