Perhaps no US president has ever benefited so much from exposure on social media as Donald Trump, but that hasn't stopped him and other right-wing political pundits from railing against social media platforms for an apparent left-wing bias. We already know the president feels this way, but now the Trump administration wants your opinion on the matter, but why exactly?
On Wednesday, the White House launched a new website that lets you share if you think your social media account has been suspended, banned or reported because of political bias. The form asks for details about specific social media entities such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and others, and also for an email address and additional personal information. That's where it gets a little suspicious.
The Trump Administration is fighting for free speech online.— The White House (@WhiteHouse) May 15, 2019
No matter your views, if you suspect political bias has caused you to be censored or silenced online, we want to hear about it! https://t.co/9lc0cqUhuf pic.twitter.com/J8ICbx42dz
If you watched the Facebook and Twitter congressional hearings, you'll have noticed that the topic of tech giants having a bias against conservatives is at least a pervasive belief held by many of the older Republican legislators. But users on these platforms have also noticed that social media companies are woefully ineffective or reluctant when it comes to limiting far-Right extremist content on their platforms, even if the aftermath of the Christchurch killings has galvanized them to take further action against online hate.
Suffice to say that almost no-one is happy with how content is moderated on large online platforms, and the definition of 'bias' can vary wildly. Judging from the responses on the The White House's tweet, many are quick to hold a grievance for almost any undesirable outcome at all, including what look to be well-meaning attempts at moderation.
Think twice before handing over this information
But it's not so important whether bias existed or not, or whether it was justified. The data gathered by this tool will likely be put into play further down the line, and not to do anything to enforce free speech or moderation standards online. Rather, the White House will build a database of the contact details, social media presence and personal information of a large number of Americans who feel persecuted by social media. With that, Trump will have a nice information set of people and what they are afraid of - their own biases, in fact - and will target them with ads and propaganda based on these concerns.
The potential abuse of the data submitted here hasn't gone unnoticed. NYT's Kevin Roose pointed out how railing against Facebook on this form could well profit Facebook immensely:
And in case anyone was not convinced of its use as solely a data gathering tool (and believes it's actually intended to help people solve their problems): pic.twitter.com/AEvAq9lt9e— Nick S (@sukienniko) May 16, 2019
Certainly there should be a conversation to be had about the boundaries of acceptable speech on social media platforms, which are private entities who simultaneously hold a lot of social and political influence and, in theory, responsibility. But this ain't it.
There's also the fact that there is nothing to stop fun-loving Americans from fouling up the form results with junk, of course. But who would do a thing like that?