President Donald Trump has long railed against social media sites for what he says is their politically biased censoring of conservative voices, and now he’s looking for proof.
The White House on Wednesday released a tool that invites people who’ve been censored on social media and who suspect political bias as the cause to “share your story with President Trump.”
The first page says:
SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS should advance FREEDOM OF SPEECH. Yet too many Americans have seen their accounts suspended, banned, or fraudulently reported for unclear ‘violations’ of user policies.
No matter your views, if you suspect political bias caused such an action to be taken against you, share your story with President Trump.
In claiming that social media platforms demonstrate anti-conservative bias, Republicans have found a reliable generator of right-wing outrage. President Trump, the whiner in chief, feels personally mistreated by social media, despite having said that he wouldn’t have been elected without it. In a meeting last month, Trump reportedly asked Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, why he’d been losing followers; Dorsey replied that everyone loses followers sometimes as Twitter sweeps the platform for bots. The following week, Trump went on a tirade after Facebook banned accounts linked to“conservative thinkers” like Alex Jones, Laura Loomer, and Milo Yiannopoulos.
So it was no great surprise when, on Wednesday, Trump put up an online questionnaire inviting members of the public to share their stories of social media “bias.” “SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS should advance FREEDOM OF SPEECH,” it reads. New York’s Max Read went as far as to call this “the apotheosis of Trumpism—a masterpiece of the politics and prerogatives of our current president.” The questionnaire allows people to channel their helpless frustration with big tech into an “emotionally satisfying” partisan grievance, Read writes—plus, it’s a scam. The form asks for a host of personal details, including your name, phone number, email address, zip code, social media account handles, and (of course) citizenship status. “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,” Kevin Roose, a tech columnist at The New York Times, tweeted.
The most concerning thing about the questionnaire, however, is who is doing the data harvesting. The form was posted not by Trump’s reelection campaign or an affiliated group, but by the federal government. Yesterday, journalists and privacy advocates pointed out myriad problems with the White House collecting people’s personal information. The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a civil liberties nonprofit, wrote, in a letter to Trump, that the questionnaire is likely illegal because Typeform, the platform hosting it, drags in and stores data beyond that which respondents consent to give. The structure of the form may also violate the First Amendment, they argue. What’s more, the questionnaire asks respondents to upload screenshots proving alleged discrimination by social media companies. As Mashable observed, the White House’s terms of service give it the right to “edit, display, publish, broadcast, transmit, post, or otherwise distribute” those screenshots in any way the administration sees fit.
The questionnaire fits a disturbing pattern of Trump and his proxies using official government resources to advance personal political agendas. As I wrote in March, the White House Twitter account—which shared the social media bias form—commonly amplifies Trump’s attacks on the press; at one point, it posted a video dissing The Washington Post’s coverage of the border. As 2020 nears, the press must navigate Trump’s tangle of politics and misuse of federal resources. The social media questionnaire may seem small, but as Brian Schatz, Democratic senator for Hawaii, told Politico, it’s a troubling gesture of authoritarianism. “I think it raises questions related to the abuse of power,” he said.
Below, more on Trump, social media, and blurred ethical lines:
- “Accountability”: The Republican Party and the Trump campaign have been known to email supporters with “media accountability surveys.” Questions have included “Do you trust the mainstream media to put the interests of Americans first?” and “Do you believe the media disdains conservatives?” As NPR’s Danielle Kurtzleben pointed out in 2017, such surveys are useful for testing talking points and for “list-building.” In a different 2017 email, Trump asked supporters to help him award a “Fake News Trophy.”
- Get me Dan Scavino: Politico’s Andrew Restuccia, Daniel Lippman, and Eliana Johnson profile Dan Scavino, Trump’s social media director, who has outsized input into the president’s decision-making. “Scavino routinely provides rationalizations or justifications for the president’s most controversial policy directives,” they write, “from his attacks on NFL players to his hard line on immigration—moves that Scavino has told the president thrill the #MAGA warriors on Twitter.”