Trump’s Very Big, Very Important White House Social-Media Summit
Our country has never been perfect, but most of us can remember a simpler time, just a few years ago, when we more or less knew how to talk to each other, how to convey basic information, how to acquire simple facts about the world. Then came social media. Now every video might be a deep fake; every headline might be a Macedonian scam; screen addiction and FOMO have made bowling, even alone, seem like the height of civic engagement; and my poor phone has had to memorize such words as “rekt” and “Kekistan” and “bugman.” What is going on? Is this just the messy forward march of democracy, or evidence of a malign techno-oligarchy? Do Facebook and Alphabet and Amazon need to be broken up, or more effectively regulated, or just better understood? Where is the boundary between misinformation and disinformation, and how can we prevent both from swaying the upcoming election? We need a robust debate about all this—not just via trending hashtags but I.R.L., face to face. A social-media summit, if you will.
The President, as always, has his finger on the pulse. “The White House will be hosting a very big and very important Social Media Summit today,” he tweeted Thursday morning. The guests were to include C.E.O.s of the major social-media companies, various lawmakers with the power to regulate said companies, constitutional-law scholars, and an array of community activists, religious leaders, and pillars of civil society.
Just kidding! Civil society is boring, and community activists have pathetic follower counts. Trump did convene a social-media summit at the White House, on Thursday afternoon, but, according to press reports, no representatives from any social-media companies were invited. It seems that only two members of Congress were in attendance: Senator Marsha Blackburn, of Tennessee, who once complained that “too many Senate Republicans act like Democrats, or worse,” and Representative Matt Gaetz, of Florida, who once appeared on Infowars to opine about ostensible Democrat-F.B.I. collusion (“we’re called conspiracy theorists because we see this cabal right in front of us”). When the closed-door summit met, in the East Room, most of the seats were filled by such stalwart MAGA memesmiths as Bill Mitchell, whose indefatigable pro-Trump cheerleading has made him a target of mockery even on the far-right; James O’Keefe, who styles himself as an investigative journalist but acts more like an opposition researcher; Charlie Kirk, whose organization, Turning Point USA, keeps finding itself mired in racism scandals; and a stay-at-home dad from Kansas City who goes by Carpe Donktum. This was not Mr. Donktum’s first invitation to the White House. Last week, while some of the country’s top legal minds scrambled to justify the President’s mercurial and self-contradictory desires related to a citizenship question on the census, the President himself spent twenty minutes relaxing in the Oval Office with Donktum, whose job, according to his Twitter bio, is “the creation of memes to support President Donald J. Trump.” “Where is the genius?” the President asked as Donktum entered the inner sanctum of American power. “I want to meet the genius.”
It should surprise no one that Trump’s ideal White House gathering looks a lot like his ideal morning show. In both cases, the goal is to radically constrain the terms of the debate: Is Trump awesomely amazing, or amazingly awesome? The discussion in the East Room surely revolved around a set of questions—obsessions, really—familiar to anyone who has spent more than five minutes lurking on MAGA Twitter. Are right-wing activists the greatest free-speech martyrs society has ever known? Will the liberal thought-police of Silicon Valley stop at nothing to silence conservative voices? Is free speech dead?
Despite how often the claim is repeated, there is no good evidence that social-media companies are capriciously censoring conservatives, and some evidence to suggest that they are bending over backward to avoid doing so. And yet the cries of the free-speech martyrs will continue to ring out—on Twitter, on Infowars, in the Rose Garden—because they have the desired effect. The more the MAGA meme army complains about anti-conservative bias, the harder the social-media companies will work to counteract the impression of bias. (This impression may not be based in reality, but representing reality has never been social media’s forte.) In other words, Donald Trump’s social-media summit seemed destined—again, unsurprisingly—to devolve into gripes about the treatment, on social media, of Donald Trump. In Thursday morning’s tweet, he continued, with his usual Emily Dickinson-esque punctuation, “Would I have become President without Social Media? Yes (probably)!” Not everyone shares this opinion, of course. Skeptics include the forty-fifth President of the United States.
On Tuesday, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled unanimously that the President cannot block followers on Twitter simply because he dislikes their views. “If the First Amendment means anything,” the judges wrote, “it means that the best response to disfavored speech on matters of public concern is more speech, not less.” Thursday afternoon, in the East Room, there was more speech, although journalists—that is, traditional journalists, of the non-memesmith variety—were not allowed to record it for posterity. “Whatever comes out of this, I think the most important thing is that it’s happening at all,” a social-media pundit named Will Chamberlain told me by phone on his way to the summit. “The Trump campaign, and then the Administration, has had this army of Internet volunteers working for them for years, and they’ve often kept them at arm’s length. Now at least they’re getting us together to talk, to strengthen those bonds.” He had a few quibbles about the guest list, but he was glad to have made the cut. “I saw someone on Twitter recently making fun of the idea that the President would invite a meme-maker to the Oval Office,” he said. “The joke was something along the lines of, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. British Ambassador, the President can’t speak to you now, he’s busy with Carpe Donktum.’ Well, sorry, but the fact is that Carpe Donktum is more relevant to American politics right now than the British ambassador could ever hope to be. That’s just reality at this point.”