Donald Trump’s social media summit Thursday has been generally characterized as an attack on such Silicon-Valley giants as Facebook and Google, which were pointedly not invited. But, in a more alarming way, I think it was first and foremost a green light for some of the more reckless and dangerous operatives on the far right to let it rip in the 2020 presidential campaign — doing their worst in spreading disinformation, conspiracy theories, doctored videos and memes that discredit Democrats or any other Trump targets no matter how false or vile the productions might be.
Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, got it mainly right when he described the group invited to the White House as “trolls, conspiracy theorists [and] anti-Semites," in a tweet.
Just inviting such a group to the White House gave them a status that troubled some analysts. But what worries me is the license Trump gave them to further pollute our information ecosystem with their work in social media during the presidential campaign. As if the Russians weren’t enough.
While the president larded his rhetoric with much talk of the First Amendment and free expression as he assailed Facebook, Twitter and Google for allegedly censoring conservative voices, the words that mattered most from the host were: "We have your backs.”
And who exactly was the president promising to backstop?
One invitee was Ali Alexander, who has already made his “contribution” to the 2020 campaign by questioning on Twitter whether Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democratic presidential candidate from California, was actually an “American Black.”
Or how about one of the stars of this crew, James O’Keefe, founder of Project Veritas, poseur, confessed lawbreaker and maker of hidden-camera videos?
O’Keefe pleaded guilty in 2010 to “entering real property belonging to the United States under false pretenses,” according to NOLA.com. O’Keefe and three others posed as telephone company workers to gain entrance to the office of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu.
Baltimore readers might remember O’Keefe for the hidden-camera video he made at an ACORN office in Baltimore in 2009 in which he posed as a pimp to try and show what he tried to characterize as corruption in the community group.
I still am still not sure how he managed to avoid being charged with breaking Maryland’s wiretap law, which requires two-party consent for any kind of taping. (I know quite a bit about this law, having been involved in a high-visibility case detailed in the related item below.)
“He’s not controversial, he’s truthful,” Trump said Thursday in praising O’Keefe.
“With amazing creativity and determination, you are bypassing the corrupt establishment, and it is corrupt. And you’re bypassing the very, very corrupt media,” Trump told invitees.
“You’re challenging the media gatekeepers and corporate censors to bring the truth to the American people," he added. " You communicate directly with our citizens without going through the fake news filter.”
Trump can, of course, bring anyone he wants to the White House and praise them. But Thursday, he used that powerful platform to give license to a group that includes some media workers who have already shown their willingness to spread disinformation and lies and even break the law in the name of their political goals.
The White House summit might have seemed like a relatively small story on a day when Trump announced a retreat from his demand for a citizenship question on Census forms and a Sunday starting date for mass ICE arrests in targeted cities including Baltimore.
In terms of immediate news and impact, the gathering probably was not as important. But it is big news in terms of what the president boldly signaled Thursday about his intention of using every power he has to further undermine the use of facts and aspiration to truth in our national conversation between now and the election in November 2020.