The White House on Wednesday asked social media users to submit their tales of suspected political bias by platforms like Facebook, Twitter and others. It also asked for a lot of personal information, with little explanation of how it would be used.
“The Trump Administration is fighting for free speech online,” read a White House tweet Wednesday. “No matter your views, if you suspect political bias has caused you to be censored or silenced online, we want to hear about it!”
The Trump Administration is fighting for free speech online.
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) May 15, 2019
The survey landing page blared that “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.” If you suspect political discrimination, it said, “share your story with President Trump.”
In exchange for an opportunity to vent to the President, respondents have to submit their zip code and email address, even if they later opt-out of receiving “email newsletters” from the White House — which will be used “so we can update you without relying on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.”
Respondents must also agree to the conditions of the White House’s user agreement, giving the government an irrevocable license to use the data in any way “in perpetuity, throughout the world, and in all forms of media.”
In response to several detailed questions — What sort of material will survey respondents get from the White House? Which officials or offices will have access to survey data? How does the White House want to regulate these companies? — a White House spokesperson, Judd Deere, offered little detail, repeating a statement he’d given other outlets.
“The White House wants to hear from all Americans – regardless of their political leanings – if they have been impacted by bias on social media platforms,” Deere said.
The data collection aspect of the White House survey troubled some digital rights advocates.
Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told TPM in a statement that it was “troubling to see people being asked to state their citizen status, provide their emails, and give links to their social media accounts in order to report instances of bias.”
The data fields, she said, “raise questions about how that information may be used and who the government really wants to hear from. Also troubling is that those submitting their stories must agree that the government can edit submissions.”
There’s also the question of Trump’s political incentives. Whether or not respondents’ data is, somehow, eventually used for fundraising purposes by the Trump 2020 campaign — it won’t be, Deere assured TPM — there appears to be little doubt Trump will use survey responses for his own political benefit.
The President has railed against so-called “shadow banning,” or the practice by social media companies of subtly burying certain people and posts in live feeds and search results. So have other Trumpy conservatives. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) sued Twitter over allegations of supposed shadow banning. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is a noted champion of the free speech rights of Trump surrogates Diamond and Silk.
“Well, we have to do something. I tell you, I have many, many millions of followers on Twitter and it’s different than it used to be,” Trump said in March, standing next to Brazilian President and fellow Twitter junkie Jair Bolsonaro in the White House Rose Garden. Separately, Trump reportedly complained to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey about losing Twitter followers. Dorsey reportedly told the President the loss was a result of the website culling fake “bot” accounts.
Trump, who even now has more than 60 million “followers,” complained in April that Twitter doesn’t “treat me well as a Republican. Very discriminatory.”
In July last year, after Vice News reported that prominent conservatives’ names weren’t auto-populating in the Twitter’s search box after users typed the first few letters of the names, Republicans seized on the opportunity. They kept up the complaints even after Twitter fixed the problem, attributing it to a technical glitch.
As The Verge noted, even though Fox News consistently ranks among the top news presences on Facebook, perceptions of viewpoint discrimination persist.
There’s a certain irony in the White House survey initiative: Last May, a federal judge ruled that President Trump violated the Constitution by blocking his critics on Twitter based on their political viewpoints. The Justice Department appealed the decision, and arguments were heard in March.
Carrie DeCell, a staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which represents people blocked by the President in the court case, told TPM in a statement that the White House should “should focus on cleaning up its own house by unblocking Twitter users it has unconstitutionally blocked from @realDonaldTrump.”
“The White House itself is responsible for some of the most troubling instances of censorship on social media,” DeCell said. “The First Amendment flatly prohibits government officials from silencing their critics on the basis of their viewpoints, yet that is exactly what President Trump and his aides have done in blocking people from the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account.”
Correction: This post initially stated that the first ruling in the Knight First Amendment Institute’s lawsuit against the President came in March. In fact, that ruling came in May last year; the Trump administration’s appeal was heard in March.