President Donald Trump would like you to believe that the world’s biggest tech platforms are conspiring against him in a bid to silence his campaign ahead of November’s election. After Facebook and Twitter removed posts by Trump and his team this week that falsely claimed children are “almost immune” to COVID-19, his administration melted down into a familiar rant against Silicon Valley’s supposed “anti-Trump” bias.
Top White House counselor Kellyanne Conway appeared on Fox News on Thursday and accused “tech overlords” of committing “election interference” and being “overly anti-Trump.” Tim Murtaugh, Trump’s communications director, argued in a tweet that Big Tech is “hopelessly biased against the President.” The Trump campaign tweeted at Facebook and Twitter, calling on them to “STOP THE BIAS!” And Courtney Parella, a campaign spokesperson, told HuffPost that the removals were “another display of Silicon Valley’s flagrant bias against this President, where the rules are only enforced in one direction.”
Such claims are unsupported by evidence but have nevertheless become a key pillar of Trump’s reelection playbook. By crying censorship and driving the conspiratorial narrative that tech giants are stifling his speech as a favor to liberals, the president has established for himself a win-win position: He can spread falsehoods on social media about whatever he wants — the media, voter fraud, the pandemic, Democratic opponent Joe Biden — and then play the victim when (or if) they get taken down, while pressuring his supporters to “fight back” by donating to his campaign.
His statement about kids and COVID-19 was not only false but dangerous, and a clear violation of Facebook and Twitter policies against coronavirus misinformation. (As many schools across the country prepare to reopen, children account for 7% of reported COVID-19 infections, or more than 200,000 cases.) Yet the removal of those posts on Wednesday still served as ammo for the campaign to rail in bad faith against tech platforms’ alleged anti-conservative discrimination.
“The real reason behind the Trump campaign’s relentless fixation on censorship isn’t about being silenced or being held to a different content moderation standard. It’s about distracting voters and manipulating them into opening their wallets.”
The idea that social media sites are uniquely targeting conservatives isn’t true; in fact, they do plenty to spread right-wing messaging.
As usual, the top-trafficking Facebook posts with links on Wednesday were mostly from conservative pages, with Fox News holding the first- and second-place slots — dispelling the notion that Facebook suppresses Republican voices. The Tech Transparency Project also revealed on Wednesday that Facebook-owned Instagram showed negative hashtags about Biden when users searched for #JoeBiden, including #CreepyJoeBiden, #JoeBidenPedophile and #JoeBidenIsARacist, but did not show similar hashtags when people searched for #DonaldTrump. And on Thursday, BuzzFeed News reported that Facebook had just fired an employee who had “collected internal evidence that showed Facebook was giving preferential treatment to prominent conservative accounts.”
To support the assertion that the Trump campaign’s recent tweet was taken down for political reasons, Conway, Parella, Murtaugh and other Trump representatives have pointed to the fact that Twitter employee Nick Pacilio — who briefly worked for Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) more than five years ago, according to his LinkedIn profile — tweeted about the removal. But as Twitter told HuffPost, Pacilio was not behind the decision to take action against the tweet.
“No one person at Twitter is responsible for our policies or enforcement actions,” a Twitter spokesperson said. “We enforce our rules judiciously and impartially for all and take action if an account violates our rules.”
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.
The real reason behind the Trump campaign’s relentless fixation on censorship isn’t about being silenced or being held to a different content moderation standard. It’s about distracting voters and manipulating them into opening their wallets.
“This fight is liberal Silicon Valley versus America. Choose your side,” Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., goads in a new campaign Facebook ad — one of the hundreds rallying supporters to rise up against tech giants by donating to Trump. “We need your help if we’re gonna win big in November. I’m calling on you to fight back and contribute. We need to defend our free speech.”
Although Trump’s team is ramping up its censorship claims as Election Day looms, this has been a major talking point throughout his presidency.
Instagram told BuzzFeed that the anti-Biden hashtags appeared due to a bug — later adding in a tweet that it “isn’t about politics” — and that was largely the end of it. In the past, however, when similar issues have affected conservatives, it has ignited an uproar: After a Twitter glitch temporarily limited the visibility of some prominent Republicans’ accounts (along with those of certain leftists) in 2018, for example, Trump unleashed a series of furious tweets and legal threats as conservative lawmakers complained of being “victimized and violated.”
More recently, after Trump tweeted in late May that there is “NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent,” Twitter labeled his tweets as “potentially misleading” and added a link providing more context about mail-in voting from third-party fact-checkers. Trump’s retaliation was swift and fierce.
“Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!” he fumed on Twitter soon after the labels were appended. “Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices. We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen.”
Two days later, Trump signed an executive order that would substantially weaken social media companies’ legal protections and expose them to liability for user-generated content. Like many of the president’s threats against Big Tech, the proposed legislation was little more than a political stunt that would be extremely difficult to enforce.
And despite Trump’s purported goal to “defend free speech,” his executive order would actually force tech platforms to be more aggressive in their content policing — effectively curtailing online freedom of expression and, ironically, leading to far more censorship.