SALT LAKE CITY — It's unclear what the White House will do with the results of a 16-part survey that was shared on Twitter last week that asked participants if they've had their social media accounts censored due to their political views. While some believe the survey is the Trump administration's genuine endeavor to understand how social media companies police content, others think the survey is a ploy to collect voter information and to fuel a narrative of anti-conservative bias in the tech industry.
“Social media platforms should advance freedom of speech. Yet too many Americans have seen their accounts suspended, banned, or fraudulently reported for unclear ‘violations’ or users policies,” reads the White House tweet, which had more than 45,000 likes and 7,200 comments as of Monday. “No matter your views, if you suspect political bias caused such an action to be taken against you, share your story with President Trump.”
The survey comes three weeks after President Donald Trump had a one-on-one meeting with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (in October, Trump accused the site of removing many of his followers) a couple weeks after Facebook banned far-right leaders including Alex Jones, Paul Nehlen and Milo Yiannopoulos, and the same week the administration opted not to join an international pact to combat online extremism, citing free speech concerns.
The survey asks respondents to submit screenshots of social media posts and actions taken against those posts in addition to other evidence of bias from four social media sites: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. It also asks respondents to provide their name, zip code, phone number, email, social media profile and citizenship status before agreeing to a sweeping user agreement that gives the federal government "license to use, edit, display, publish, broadcast, transmit, post, or otherwise distribute" any responses or information collected.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said the administration created the online forum to hear from all Americans, regardless of their political leanings, Aarti Shahani of NPR News reported. But the administration has not shared how the results will be analyzed.
"The survey’s vague questions and subjectivity might make it difficult to turn the responses into a quantifiable report," Molly McHugh wrote for The Ringer.
"The best course of action is to refrain from taking the survey altogether; self-censorship seems safer than agreeing to the White House’s conditions," added McHugh, who expressed concerns that the information could be edited and misrepresented for political purposes.
The survey is an "indication of the president's complicated relationship with social media platforms," she said.
Despite being a frequent Twitter user, Trump has repeatedly accused social media companies of censoring Republican content, for example, accusing Twitter of "shadow-banning" conservatives or hiding their posts.
Last year, Vice News reported that some Republican officials weren’t showing up in automatic search results on Twitter. In 2016, Gizmodo interviewed a former Facebook journalist who said workers at Facebook suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers.
However, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube have long professed political neutrality.
“The success and growth of Internet companies depends upon a broad user base regardless of party affiliation or political perspectives," Michael Beckerman, the president of the Internet Association, a Washington-based group that represents tech companies, told the Washington Post.
"Is (the survey) a way for the White House to fuel the narrative that social media companies are unfairly censoring people and look into whether that’s the case? Sure, maybe," Emily Stewart wrote for Vox. "But it’s definitely a way for them to also build out their voter database and gather information to contact people later."
Deere declined to answer questions about what the White House will do with the data but said the information will “absolutely not be shared” with Trump’s reelection campaign, the Washington Post reported.
The questionnaire however, asks if users want to sign up to the White House’s email newsletter, allowing them to be updated on Trump’s “fight for free speech ... without relying on platforms like Facebook and Twitter."
"The larger issue is that the survey will likely court biased responses," wrote McHugh. Katharine Trendacosta, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The Ringer that groups of people who feel marginalized or threatened by the government are less likely to respond to the survey and offer personal information.
Thousands of comments on the Wednesday tweet expressed support for the White House's initiative.
“People who submit stories about their content being taken down are angry,” Trendacosta said. “So you end up with a very self-selecting group of people telling their stories, which doesn’t give an accurate or full picture of the problem of content moderation or online censorship or any of the sort of buzzwords around this topic."
The user agreement
The White House survey user agreement says the responses will become public record and the government can do, essentially, anything it wants with them.
"You grant the U.S. Government (including, but not limited to the Executive Office of the President) a license to any 'Content' (including but not limited to the photographs, information, text, or otherwise) you post or submit on this site," the agreement reads. "You should not post any information that you do not wish to become public."
Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told Politico the information the White House is requesting, including contact info, zip code and citizenship status, is “very sensitive” and warned that there is “no indication that the White House has given any thought to the privacy risks of providing this personal data to the federal government.”
“I think the fact that they want to edit it and they don’t want to ask your permission for the final form is kind of telling,” Trendacosta told The Ringer.
David Schultz, a political science and law professor at Hamline University in Minnesota told The Ringer that Trump's office could potentially take responses and edit them to present positions that are opposite of what was intended.
"You turn over all of your rights to let the government use your comments any way it pleases,” Schultz said.
Twitter users also criticized the less-than-high-tech way the survey asks respondents to confirm they are human: fill in the year the Declaration of Independence was signed.
On multiple occasions, Trump has suggested that something should be done to combat perceived liberal bias on social media. Last August, the president's top economic advisor suggested the White House is “taking a look” at regulating Google’s search results. In March, Trump pledged to “do something about” allegations that Facebook, Google and Twitter are censoring conservatives. And after Facebook recently removed a set of right-wing users from its site that it deemed “dangerous,” Trump said he would “monitor” social media.
According to an article David French wrote for the National Review, human moderators are tasked with policing all of Facebook's questionable posts. These moderators must apply ever-changing policies that French called "often utterly incoherent and sometimes made up 'on the fly.'"
"Censors can behave in unpredictable, arbitrary, and capricious ways — and no one has a sufficient monopoly on truth to serve as philosopher king over speech and debate," French wrote.
In 2016, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg met with an exclusive group of conservative leaders to discuss how the social network handles conservative content. The social media site has even partnered with right-leaning outlets as fact-checkers. Last year, Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg took part in a congressional hearing about alleged bias.
"Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter say that when they block or censor users, it’s because they’ve violated their policies, not because of some secret liberal political agenda. What’s more, platforms can block and censor content however they choose. It’s within their legal rights. The federal government owes you free speech. Google doesn’t," Stewart wrote for Vox.10 comments on this story
Recode co-founder Kara Swisher wrote for the New York Times that social media companies can ban users who violate their policies, and that they can change those policies whenever and however they want. They can even be "wildly inconsistent in how they enforce them."
But Jillian C. York, the director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Washington Post that even though social media companies aren't legally required to monitor content in an equitable and consistent way, they should anyway.
“Companies have become so big. ... They should, and have, a moral responsibility to take human rights into account," York said.