President Donald Trump’s war on supposed social media bias is about a lot of things — riling up conservatives, creating a bogeyman, his confusion over Twitter followers. But in its latest iteration, it’s also a way for him to build out the White House email list.
The White House this week unveiled a new tool for people to report to the president if they feel their social media accounts have been unfairly banned, suspended, or censored. “No matter your views, if you suspect political bias caused such an action to be taken against you, share your story with President Trump,” the page reads.
It then collects your complaint — as well as a lot of your contact information, including your name, zip code, phone number (“in case we need to get in touch”), and email address. And at the very end, it asks to add you to the White House email list.
Is it a way for the White House to fuel the narrative that social media companies are unfairly censoring people and look into whether that’s the case? Sure, maybe. But it’s definitely a way for them to also build out their voter database and gather information to contact people later.
This latest ploy illustrates the disingenuous nature of complaints from Trump and other Republicans that social media is biased against conservatives. For one thing, it’s not clear that’s the case — platforms such as Facebook and Twitter say that when they block or censor users, it’s because they’ve violated their policies, not because of some secret liberal political agenda. What’s more, platforms can block and censor content however they choose. It’s within their legal rights. The federal government owes you free speech. Google doesn’t.
What the White House is getting here, and why it matters, briefly explained
The tool the White House is using to gather information about reports of social media bias is a simple Typeform page — it’s a template anyone can use to get people to fill out forms.
“SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS should advance FREEDOM OF SPEECH,” the form’s prompt reads. “Yet too many Americans have seen their accounts suspended, banned, or fraudulently reported for unclear ‘violations’ of user policies.”
It then lets you start filling out your bias report and your personal information, and asks you whether the White House can email you later. To confirm you’re not a robot, it also asks what year the Declaration of Independence was signed. And then — poof — you’ve handed your data over to the Trump administration.
A New York Times tech columnist made the observation on Twitter. “The thing about the Trump Facebook bias survey is it’s just going to be used to assemble a voter file, which Trump will then pay Facebook millions of dollars to target with ads about how biased Facebook is,” he wrote. He suggested the Trump team might also have tested the “tech is biased” messaging and figured out it’s working on people.
Getting people to fill out forms and hand over their information to build out contact lists isn’t a novel strategy for political campaigns. It happens all the time. Campaigns are constantly targeting people with ads to get them to add themselves to their voter files, and email lists are highly valuable in politics. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), for example, has built out a massive email list and amassed tens of thousands of volunteers and donors.
Beyond building out a contact list and, as the form states, gathering potential examples of social media bias, it’s not clear what else the White House plans to do with the data it’s asking people to hand over. The user agreement accompanying the form grants the government permission to “use, edit, display, publish, broadcast, transmit, post, or otherwise distribute” the content people submit, which is pretty broad.
Marc Rotenberg, president of privacy watchdog the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told Politico the information the White House is requesting is “very sensitive” and warned that there is “no indication that the White House has given any thought to the privacy risks of providing this personal data to the federal government.”
Silicon Valley is a convenient enemy
Conservatives have for quite some time complained that they’re being censored by social media, and companies have struggled to respond.
In 2016, Gizmodo reported that workers at Facebook routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers, citing a former Facebook journalist. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg subsequently met with conservative leaders to discuss how the social network handles conservative content.
Twitter has also faced accusations of bias. Trump and other Republicans last year seized on the narrative that Twitter was “shadow banning” conservatives after a Vice News report that some Republican officials weren’t showing up in automatic search results. The accounts being suppressed were also ones that Twitter’s algorithm had determined were taking part in unhealthy and abusive behavior. The president has also complained about his declining follower count, which is the result of Twitter’s broad efforts to clean up its platform. CEO Jack Dorsey recently met with Trump to try to explain that.
Despite tech companies’s efforts to smooth things over, the accusations continue. Earlier this month, Facebook banned a number of right-wing extremists, including conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, white supremacist Paul Nehlen, and far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopolous. It also banned Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has espoused anti-Semitic views.
Facebook explained at the time it had banned the group because they violated its policies against dangerous individuals and organizations. But Trump and a number of Republicans cried foul.
I am continuing to monitor the censorship of AMERICAN CITIZENS on social media platforms. This is the United States of America — and we have what’s known as FREEDOM OF SPEECH! We are monitoring and watching, closely!!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 3, 2019
There is no clear evidence that Facebook, Twitter, or any of the platforms are engaging in some sort of coordinated plot against conservatives. They’ve gone to great lengths to appease conservatives and show that’s not the case. Facebook has even partnered with right-leaning outlets as fact-checkers for news. Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg took part in a congressional hearing last year about alleged bias.
At the end of the day, Facebook and Twitter can police their platforms however they want
Perhaps the more important point in all of this discussion of how Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others are moderating content and users on their platforms is that they are legally allowed to do it.
The First Amendment prohibits the government from infringing on free speech, not private companies. Recode co-founder Kara Swisher recently laid that point out in the New York Times:
Social media companies are private entities that can moderate any of the content that floods their platforms. They can kick off users who violate whatever policies they have in place, change those policies anytime they like and be wildly inconsistent in how they enforce them.
That’s entirely legal under current law, which was girded by the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which said that corporations have free-speech rights, including the right not to speak. That means they cannot be forced to host dreck if they don’t want to.
Internet platforms are also protected under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which prevents them from being held liable for the content posted by their users and gives them space to police their sites and restrict and take down material as they see fit.
Trump and Republicans could, conceivably, try to enact legislation to erode Section 230 or punish social media companies in other ways. But that’s not what the White House’s latest bias complaint endeavor is all about. That’s a ploy to get your email.
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