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By Melissa Ryan
This week the Trump Administration invited far-right trolls for a social media summit held at the White House. Media Matters has compiled a list of known attendees, reporting that “Some of these figures have ties to white nationalists and far-right figures, and others have pushed extremism and conspiracy theories themselves, such as the “QAnon” conspiracy theory, anti-Semitic attacks on George Soros, and smears targeting multiple Democratic presidential candidates.”
President Trump inadvertently summed up the social media summit perfectly when he made his remarks, saying “The crap you think of is unbelievable.”
Trump’s social media summit has received loads of negative press attention but no one has called the event out for what it is: a campaign event.
For all the praise that the traditional media love to fawn on Trump’s use of social media, they consistently miss what I think is the Trump political organization’s greatest strength, their digital outreach operation. Trump’s staff (and his son, Don Jr.) actively cultivate relationships with far-right and pro-Trump communities, sharing messaging and talking points with influencers, and amplifying their content to a broader audience.
But as Vice News’ Tess Owen noted this week, there’s trouble in paradise and Trump’s support from the so-called alt-right might not materialize in 2020, explaining “Extremism experts say their apparent lack of interest in Trump is partly because the heyday of the “alt-right” as a coordinated bloc is over — and partly because they feel betrayed by Trump, who, by operating in the political mainstream, is now tainted by the very swamp he promised to drain. Many also feel like he has failed to deliver on the sweeping immigration enforcement he promised during the campaign.”
There’s no guarantee that Trump’s Army will show up for him in 2020, and even if they do the trolls’ ability to behave any way they like without consequence has been somewhat curbed by deplatforming and changing policies on the platforms. The social media summit is a way for Trump to reconnect with his online supporters early in his reelection campaign, all at the taxpayers expense.
Meanwhile in the Democratic primary…
By now you’re probably aware that the Birthers are back and their latest target is Democratic Presidential hopeful, Senator Kamala Harris. During and after Harris’ strong performance in the first Democratic debate, she was inundated with abuse and disinformation from far-right trolls.
CNN’s Donie Sullivan reports that “In addition to efforts to undermine Harris’ identity as a black woman, a false claim that Harris is not eligible to run for president because both of her parents are foreign-born has also been circulating. The claim has echoes of the false birther conspiracy that was spread about President Barack Obama — and some of the same people involved in spreading that conspiracy are involved in circulating the false claims about Harris.”
Most of Harris’ fellow candidates came to her defense within a few days of the troll attack, an act of solidarity that I hope becomes a best practice for Democrats as the primary continues. The more campaigns show solidarity with one another, the less material trolls aiming to create division within the Democratic party have to work with.
Here’s what the candidates didn’t do: put any blame on the tech companies or pressure them to do anything about the attacks on Harris. The racist attacks spread as quickly as they did because hostile actors are still able to game the tech platforms and make extremist content go viral. By focusing exclusively on mostly anonymous trolls, presidential campaigns missed an opportunity to make Big Tech take any of the heat.
Harris and her fellow candidates are customers of the tech platforms. They’re spending large amounts of money buying ads on Facebook, Google, and Twitter to name a few. (If you want to know just how much money, Acronym’s FWIW 2020 dashboard is a fantastic resource.) If a Presidential campaign raises this as an issue at the very least the tech platforms will hear them out and attempt to placate them. If the Democratic campaigns pressured Facebook, Google, and Twitter jointly, it could become a PR nightmare for the platforms. And we know from experience PR nightmares are the only thing the tech platforms might actually take action on.
There’s a blueprint for collective action yielding results. Facebook’s Civil Rights Audit, is the result of a sustained pressure campaign from civil rights groups. The audit hasn’t solved Facebook’s hate and extremism problem, but it gives advocates a continual way to pressure Facebook when these issues inevitably come up again.
The Democratic Presidential campaigns have a lot of collective consumer power with the tech platforms right now. They should use it. Demanding the tech companies do right by their colleague is the first step. But they’re also in a position to stand up for their base, including women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ Americans who still face harm, hate and harassment online.
Online toxicity will be an ongoing problem in 2020. Trump has made the calculation that his only path to victory is to appeal to their white supremacist and male supremacist base. There are few lines of decency the Trump campaign won’t cross, and pro-Trump dark money groups and trolls cross them with glee. The Democratic Presidential campaigns should draw a moral line, but that line is meaningless if they don’t also demand that tech companies take responsibility for their role in creating this toxic atmosphere online.