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Why Trump and Don Jr. are going to war with Silicon Valley

It's a week before Google, Facebook, and Twitter go before Congress to answer questions about privacy and election interference.

by David Gilbert
Aug 30 2018, 3:38pm

Big Tech, which helped deliver Trump to the White House, is now the enemy.

As part of the president’s sustained assault on “fake news” pretty much ever since he took office, he’s lately blaming Silicon Valley for silencing his and other conservative voices — all without any real evidence. The latest attacks, against Google, even include threats to investigate or bring legal action, and Donald Trump Jr.’s gotten in on the rage, suggesting the solution is to create a conservative-only social network.

The cries of social-media bias have actually been building for awhile, but the ramp-up this week has observers wondering about the timing of Trump's baseless Google bashing, and what’s really behind it.

What happened this week?

On Wednesday the president posted a short video on Twitter suggesting Google displayed its left-leaning bias by promoting Obama’s State of the Union address prominently on its highly trafficked homepage for years, but didn't highlight Trump's in 2017 and 2018.

Google quickly dismissed Trump’s claims:

“On January 30, 2018, we highlighted the live stream of President Trump’s State of the Union on the google.com homepage. We have historically not promoted the first address to Congress by a new President, which is technically not a State of the Union address. As a result, we didn’t include a promotion on google.com for this address in either 2009 or 2017.”

The day before, the president claimed Google’s search algorithm was biased toward left-leaning media organizations — a claim that was based on a spurious report from conservative blog PJ Media and again quickly debunked by Google.

But it’s not just Google that's in Trump’s crosshairs. Earlier on Wednesday the president took a broad swipe at the perceived anti-conservative bias of companies like Facebook, and Twitter too, claiming it was costing him followers on social media. “I think they treat Republicans and conservatives very unfairly,” he said. “It’s not right, it’s not fair, it may not be legal.”

And it could lead to a clampdown on the tech sector, with White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow telling reporters earlier this week that the administration would “take a look” at possible regulation.

Why is Trump railing against Silicon Valley now?

Trump’s attacks on Google this week appear to have come out of nowhere, and a source at the company who was not authorized to speak on the record said the search giant has been struggling to find a reason for the U.S. president’s baseless claims.

But this is something that’s been brewing for some time.

Ever since Diamond and Silk, conservative bloggers who claimed Facebook demoted their content, were given a public platform to air their grievances against Silicon Valley, GOP lawmakers have jumped on the bandwagon.

The #StopTheBias hashtag used by Trump Wednesday is one that has been pushed in conservative circles for months now, with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy telling Axios: “The companies cannot sit back and say nothing is happening. Algorithms are written by people. Everybody has some bias in them. Anyone claims they don't have bias, they're not human.”

I thought Trump loved Twitter and his campaign was basically won on Facebook?

Trump’s 2016 expertly used Facebook to target ad campaigns at swing states in a way that Hillary Clinton’s campaign failed to do, and helped him energize voters. His 2020 campaign is already up and running, and in May alone, it bought 5,900 Facebook ads.

By raising the possibility that Facebook censors conservative voices, Trump and the Republican Party are ensuring that the company will double down on ensuring such a thing doesn’t happen.

This week the New York Times reported that Brian Amerige, a senior engineer at the social media giant, had created a conservative group called Facebookers for Political Diversity to counter the “political monoculture” at the company and ensure non-liberal voices are not censored.

On Twitter, which Trump uses as an unfiltered loudspeaker, the company has been accused of shadow-banning conservative voices, something Trump and others in the GOP have latched onto and used as a stick to beat the company with — forcing Jack Dorsey to go on Sean Hannity’s radio show and deny the company censors any political views.

As technology journalist Kara Swisher succinctly puts it: “Rather than attacking techies, [Trump] should send them a gold-embossed thank you note.”

Do conservatives have any evidence this is true?

As Sen. Mark Warner said Wednesday, Trump’s claims about Google indicate “the president doesn’t really understand how search algorithms work.” While that may be the case, very few people really understand how they work, even the people inside companies like Google and Facebook.

“Often biases are produced without really wanting it,” Yann Leretaille, founder of the Good Technology Collective, told VICE News. “These tech companies are just deploying this technology, and no one really thinks there might be biases or unintended consequences for society."

The algorithms Google uses to decide what information it displays in search results and in what order is a black box: We know what goes in, and what comes out, but we don’t know how it’s processed.

That said, the lack of transparency about these algorithms doesn’t necessarily suggest any wrongdoing on the parts of the companies. They are simply protecting their intellectual property and there is no definitive evidence to suggest any of the major platforms have purposely built in anti-conservative biases in their systems.

As a political issue, do regular people care?

It appears Trump and the GOP believe that people care, and that this topic resonates strongly with their voter base, in a similar way to gun control and immigration.

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon says the president is right to attack companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter, calling the companies’ leaders “sociopaths.” He says control of the data held by these companies should be taken away:

“I think you take [the data] away from the companies. All that data they have is put in a public trust,” Bannon told CNN. He added that the big tech companies should be “broken up.”

Bannon has fallen out with Trump but is seeking to ingratiate himself again with a new group called Citizens for the American Republic, which has already produced a whole film depicting the president’s brave fight against the tyranny of the Left.

He added that even if Trump’s allegations are not accurate, by raising the subject, it gets things “into the conversation.”

“The president often times sees information and thinks it ought to be in the public dialogue," Bannon said, adding that the direction of Trump's rhetoric is "correct.”

What’s next?

The timing of Trump’s attacks this week is interesting, given they come just a week before representatives from Google, Facebook and Twitter are due to sit before Congress to answer questions about a variety of topics, including privacy and election interference.

By railing on alleged anti-conservative bias by these companies, Trump is all but ensuring that this topic will at least be raised on Capitol Hill next week, and could come to dominate the hearings.

There are several other topics — such as Russian interference in the 2016 election — that Trump and the White House would prefer got less prominence next week.

However, it appears now that Google will be represented by an empty chair after the Senate Intelligence Committee said the company failed to offer a senior-level executive to face questioning.

But if the hearings don’t throw up any solutions to these platforms’ perceived anti-conservative bias, then Donald Trump Jr. has another option — create a conservative-only social network.

“I'd love to do it,” he told Axios when asked if the Trump campaign could build one for the 2020 campaign. “But what I would prefer is, take one of the two Silicon Valley conservatives and let them start it. And then I'd help promote the platform and be all over that.”