President Donald Trump appeared to be in his happy place: boasting about his Twitter prowess before a nodding crowd of his favorite internet celebrities.
In this sense, the White House’s so-called “Social Media Summit” Thursday went about exactly as expected. The Tweeter-in-Chief even squeezed in a few compliments for the digital allies arrayed before him, many of whom have achieved viral fame by peddling conspiracies or far-right outrage.
“Some of you are extraordinary,” he said. “Not all of you. But some of you are extraordinary. The crap you think of is unbelievable.”
The White House did not invite the big social media companies to its event on purported bias against conservatives. There was no constructive conversation around the many and varied problems of social media to be had on Thursday. The public portion of the much-publicized event instead resembled a live reenactment of one of Trump’s early-morning tweetstorms.
With a captive audience crammed into the East Room of the White House, the president took the opportunity to bash tech companies, highlight his poll numbers, personally commend Project Veritas provocateur James O’Keefe, mistakenly say that Arnold Schwarzenegger is dead while referencing a canceled TV show, and — like any good Twitter user — complain that he’s not getting retweets like he used to.
“When I put out something, a good one that people like, right? A good tweet. It goes up,” Trump said. “It used to go up, it would say: 7,000; 7,008; 7,017; 7,024; 7,032; 7,044. Right? Now it goes: 7,000; 7,008; 6,998. Then they go: 7,009; 6,074. I said, what’s going on? It never did that before. It goes up, and then they take it down. Then it goes up. I never had it. Does anyone know what I’m talking about with this?”
Numerous voices in the crowd responded: Yes!
In an event billed as a free-speech fest, Trump also made sure to differentiate between his supporters’ ability to say whatever they wished online and the press’ right to cover him critically.
“It’s so crooked. It’s so dishonest,” he said. “Free speech is not when you see something good and write bad. You become angry at it. It’s not good.”
Earlier in the day, reporters shared images of props that had been distributed throughout the summit venue, including signs with phonetically spelled buzzwords associated with social media. For example: “SHADOW BANNING, shad-oh ban-ing, verb: The subjective hiding or demotion of a social media user’s visibility, typically in search results.”
Trump hammered the point home in his free-associative remarks afterward, zeroing in on a favorite refrain among conservatives.
“Shadowban. Hundred percent. If you look at what’s going on,” he said. “The blocking, the basic blocking of what we want to get out! The fact they don’t let them join,” said Trump, gesturing at the assortment of internet trolls, MAGA provocateurs, and his eldest son sitting before him. “I should have millions and millions. I would have so many millions you wouldn’t believe it. But they’ve been blocked! I have people say, ‘sir, I can’t find you.” They make it impossible! They can’t find me!”
He went on to extol the virtues of quick, dirty diplomacy via social media. For example, Trump asserted that the complex issue of Israel’s Golan Heights — the subject of political meetings and summits for 50 years — was, in fact, fixed by a tweet he fired off during a visit.
“They fly in, they fly out,” Trump said, referring to his predecessors. “Some had beautiful planes, some didn’t. Some didn’t get there by plane.”
Not Trump, thanks to his 280-character megaphone.
“I talked about it very quickly,” Trump said. “I press it. In two seconds, we have breaking news. Now that’s Twitter. That’s social media. I call Twitter a typewriter. Because it goes onto Facebook automatically. It goes onto Instagram. It goes onto television. More to Fox than CNN.”
Adding to the conspiratorial framing of the summit, Twitter — Trump’s platform of choice — went dark just as the event was slated to begin. And a reporter from the pro-Trump conspiracy site Infowars was live-streaming just steps away from the White House as it all went down. Was it just a coincidence, Millie Weaver asked interviewees?
“The initial salvo of the digital war just started,” an unidentified man responded. “Mark my words.”
Infowars sits on the crazier fringe of the pro-Trump internet. But its assumptions around a momentary outage point to many of his digital media allies’ thought processes.
“You can’t try to shadow-ban all of us all at once,” Weaver said to the camera. “The only way they can try to kill #SocialMediaSummit and the cries from conservatives to crack down on Twitter is to kill social media. Think of it: Twitter has a motive as to why they wouldn’t want the Social Media Summit to go viral. These are all conservatives that have a case against them.”
“This cannot be a coincidence,” she added. “This is trying to ruin the effect that the Social Media Summit could possibly have through this social media hemisphere.”
Cover: President Donald Trump speaks during the "Presidential Social Media Summit" in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, July 11, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)