Conspiracy theorists, far-right agitators head to White House with social media in their sights

President Donald Trump is scheduled to host several internet personalities at an event that disinformation researchers say legitimizes people who traffic in trolling and harassment.
President Donald Trump speaks during the "Salute to America" Fourth of July event at the Lincoln Memorial on July 4, 2019.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images
By Ben Collins and Monica Alba

President Donald Trump is scheduled to host several right-wing internet personalities at an event Thursday that the White House said was intended to “share how they have been affected by bias online.”

Trump and other Republican politicians have recently amplified attacks on social media companies for what they see as unfair censorship directed at conservatives. Trump has repeatedly decried “censorship” of users who have been banned from social media for breaking terms-of-service agreements on sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Some users have had their accounts terminated by social media platforms for operating fake accounts or directing hate speech at other users.

While the Trump administration has generally embraced the far-right social media sphere, Thursday’s event will be one of the first to bring that digital ecosystem into the real world. Disinformation researchers who spoke with NBC News said the event further legitimizes a network of social media personalities who repeatedly target politicians and social media users with disinformation, trolling and harassment campaigns.

“I feel like maybe the rest of us are in denial, or disbelief, that these kinds of internet celebrities and social media influencers are already a powerful force shaping our culture,” said Erin Gallagher, who maps influence networks of targeted harassment and disinformation. “The people and topics that they elevate with their massive platforms are incredibly toxic and will have very damaging long-term effects on society.”

The toxicity of at least one of the attendees has already caused problems for the event.

Cartoonist Ben Garrison, who was initially invited to the summit, is no longer attending. Garrison faced criticism for a cartoon that showed George Soros as a puppet master. The Anti-Defamation League called the cartoon “anti-Semitic” in 2017. Images of Soros, a Democratic donor who is frequently the target of conspiracy theories, have been a recurring trope in Garrison’s cartoons.

Various people have posted on social media their invitations to the event, but it’s unclear whether all will be attending, given some controversy over their past online behavior.

Conspiracy theorist Bill Mitchell, an online radio host and a frequent guest on Infowars who has promoted the Qanon conspiracy theory, has tweeted that he will attend the event. Tim Pool, a YouTube personality who has pushed the false conspiracy theory that former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich leaked hacked emails to WikiLeaks, also plans to attend the event.

Right-wing commentator Ali Alexander also received an invitation. Alexander made headlines in recent weeks for questioning Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris’ ethnicity in a tweet that was retweeted by Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son. Harris was born in Oakland, California, and her father and mother are immigrants from Jamaica and India, respectively.

The White House has neither disclosed how guests were invited to the summit nor provided a full list of expected participants, but it did say Wednesday night that the event would be closed to the press.

The president appeared to reverse course Thursday morning, tweeting that the press would be allowed into the event "for a limited period."

Judd Deere, White House deputy press secretary, said the president looked forward to speaking with the attendees.

“Earlier this year, the White House launched a tool to allow Americans, regardless of their political views, to share how they have been affected by bias online,” Deere said. “After receiving thousands of responses, the president wants to engage directly with these digital leaders in a discussion on the power of social media.”

Last week, some of the president’s best-known social media fans and content generators met with him in the Oval Office ahead of the “Salute to America” celebration on the Fourth of July.

At least one of those attendees, who goes by @mad_liberals on Twitter, is planning to be at the social media gathering Thursday, according to his Twitter account, where he documented his stay at the Trump Hotel in Washington. The identity of that account has not been made public.

Joan Donovan, the director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, said that the event validated much of the research she’s seen in the past few years, calling it an in-person meetup of the “alternative influence network” of troll accounts that have distorted politics on social media since before the 2016 election.

“It actually crystallizes what we know is a partisan media ecosystem that was, at first, completely denied as a real phenomenon,” Donovan said.

Ben Collins

Ben Collins covers disinformation, extremism and the internet for NBC News.

Monica Alba

Monica Alba is a political reporter for NBC News.