The Media Today

With social media ‘bias’ form, Trump uses the White House for personal politics

May 17, 2019

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.

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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.”
  • Rebrand: Social media “censorship” is also on the mind of Raheem Kassam, the former editor of Breitbart UK, and Will Chamberlain, a conservative activist. The pair will make social media bias the cause célèbre of Human Events—a long-running newspaper, once a favorite of Ronald Reagan—that Kassam and Chamberlain are rebooting for the Trump era. Kassam tells Politico’s Ben Schreckinger that Human Events will pursue “tabloid intellectualism,” focusing on “Trump as a philosophy.”
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Other notable stories:

  • Earlier this year, Digital First Media, a notorious hedge-fund-backed publisher, attempted a takeover of Gannett, but was rebuffed. Undeterred, Digital First, which already owns 7.5 percent of Gannett, planned to infiltrate Gannett’s board. But that effort appears to have failed, too: yesterday, Gannett representatives said that shareholders elected a clean slate of members to the board, beating out Digital First’s preferred candidates. The Wall Street Journal’s Cara Lombardo and Lukas I. Alpert have more.
  • Last week, after two months in jail, Chelsea Manning was released. She’d refused to testify to a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. But yesterday, she was called again, to appear before another grand jury, and again, she refused. Manning was held in contempt of court and sent back to jail. (Earlier in the week, I looked at the legal limbo of Manning and Assange.)
  • For CJR, Anat Kamm, who was jailed in Israel for leaking military documents to a reporter from Haaretz, writes that the paper failed to properly protect her as a source when it came under pressure from the government. “Haaretz did not wait for a court order to return the documents they got from me,” Kamm writes. “It did not appeal to a higher body in an attempt to protect me, or raise public opinion against such a tyrannical demand.” Last year, a judge ordered Haaretz to pay damages. Yesterday, Kamm spoke with Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, on our podcast, The Kicker.
  • Gabe Fleisher, a 17-year-old journalist in St. Louis whose morning newsletter has 50,000 subscribers, scooped Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, on de Blasio’s presidential announcement, the Post’s Isaac Stanley-Becker reports. Fleisher spotted an announcement from a Democratic organization in Iowa inviting members to de Blasio’s campaign tour and broke the news to the world, disrupting de Blasio’s careful rollout plans.
  • This week in Mexico, Francisco Romero, a police and crime reporter in Quintana Roo, was fatally shot. According to Reuters, he’s the sixth journalist to be killed in Mexico since December.
  • On Wednesday, Trump pardoned Conrad Black, a disgraced British media mogul who had been convicted, in 2007, of defrauding his own company, Hollinger International— owner of the Chicago Sun-Times, Jerusalem Post, and London Daily Telegraph. Trump and Black are old business associates; last year, Black wrote an fawning book, Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other. Trump has now pardoned 10 people, including Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff; Dinesh D’Souza; a right-wing commentator; and, this week, Patrick Nolan, a Republican politician and friend of Jared Kushner.
  • According to a Politico/Morning Consult poll, 54 percent of voters think Trump has been successful in business, despite recent reporting from the Times showing that his core businesses lost more than $1 billion between 1985 and 1994. The poll presented respondents with the information in the Times story, and still, a plurality—43 to 41 percent—said that Trump has been a success.
  • WDRC, a radio station in Connecticut, is rebranding itself as “Trump 103.3 WDRC” as it moves to FM, The Hartford Courant reports. The station will feature syndicated talk from conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly, Ben Shapiro, and Dana Loesch, as well as local programming seeking to turn the blue state red.
  • For CJR, Shaya Tayefe Mohajer looks back at The Liberator, an early-20th-century newspaper that helped build the Black community in Los Angeles. Its founder, Jefferson Lewis Edmonds, “extolled the virtues of California in his newspaper, at times seeming to speak directly to the Southern Blacks he left behind, promising safety and opportunity beyond any they’d experienced in America,” Mohajer writes.
  • And Eric Talmadge, North Korea bureau chief for the Associated Press, has died at the age of 57, following a heart attack. “Talmadge was one of only a few international journalists with regular access to North Korea, where the AP established a video news office in 2006 and a text and photo bureau in 2012,” the AP’s Foster Klug writes. “With his frequently exclusive on-the-ground view, Talmadge latched onto and revelled in the small, telling details that upended widespread Western stereotypes about North Korea.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.