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White House summit spotlights right's new split on tech

Illustration of a finger pointing accusingly at a computer with a frown face on its screen
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The White House's Thursday "social media summit," gathering conservative critics of social media platforms, will also highlight how Trump-era politics have split the right on tech issues.

Why it matters: As with trade, tech is an area where Trump's ascendancy has scrambled traditional power dynamics and policy positions. Free-market thinkers who drove the conservative side of the conversation for years have lost ground to social media personalities who are more open to government intervention against Big Tech — and have the ear of people in power.

Details: Invites have gone out to a wide range of pro-Trump players for the Thursday meeting, which the president is expected to address. (Elements of the guest list were first reported by the Washington Post.)

  • Invitees range from the Media Research Center, which has drawn attention by claiming anti-conservative bias at platforms like YouTube and Facebook, to activists like Ryan Fournier, the chairman of Students for Trump, to social media stars like the pseudonymous "CarpeDonktum."
  • Facebook wasn't invited nor, reportedly, was Twitter.

Yes, but: Conservative charges of censorship have never been backed by more than anecdotal evidence. The president has praised Twitter in the past and still uses it heavily.

Flashback: For years, conversations about tech policy have been dominated by deregulatory rhetoric from free market experts and think tanks, and their positions have helped to shape a business climate that gave tech companies a free hand to grow massive and massively profitable.

The big picture: As Trump has transformed the Republican Party in his nationalist and pugnacious image, the tech policy debate on the right has followed.

  • Republicans have increasingly seized on the charges of anti-conservative censorship as a sign something must be done about Silicon Valley's giants.
  • That idea is taking root. Last month, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) released a proposal to strip large web platforms of their immunity against lawsuits for user-generated content if the Federal Trade Commission judges that their content moderation practices aren't politically neutral.

"The intellectual currents that are filling the void in the post-Trump era, it's hard to see exactly which direction they'll take, but it seems to not be going in a libertarian direction," said Zach Graves, the head of policy for Lincoln Network, who co-wrote a piece recently saying that tech companies should be willing to work with more than just libertarian conservatives.

  • He and his co-author said that tech companies "engage in a more robust dialogue with groups on the right they aren't comfortable talking to, particularly those who have expressed grievances with them."
  • Berin Szoka, the president of the free-market group TechFreedom, tweeted in response to Graves' piece that "there's no one left in the 'conservative movement' to 'hold back the growing tide of anti-tech populism' because today's GOP is ENTIRELY about anti-elite populism and 'owning the libs.'"

There are overlaps between this new coalition on tech issues and the far right.

  • BuzzFeed News reported last month that Mark Epstein, a lawyer who had been writing opinion pieces critical of Big Tech for years, is Marcus Epstein, an activist with links to white nationalists who was previously charged with assaulting a black woman. (Epstein told BuzzFeed he had submitted his opinion pieces with an "accurate bio" and expressing his "honest opinions.")
  • Bill Mitchell, a social media personality who says he's been invited to Thursday's summit, has spoken approvingly of the QAnon conspiracy theory.

The other side: More traditional conservative players are pushing back.

  • The Koch political network has been financing efforts to fight drastic regulation of tech companies, for example.

Our thought bubble: The real test of the right's new "regulate Big Tech" wing will come not in White House theatrics but in attempts to pass actual legislation. Doing that will require them to work with Democrats motivated by very different beefs with the tech platforms.