Before social media became ubiquitous, far-right conspiracy theories often circulated by way of viral email chains. It may sound ridiculous to younger readers, but damaging misinformation often spread like wildfire through these emails.
With this in mind, the Obama White House in 2009 hoped to combat these tactics with the truth, but in order to do that effectively, officials needed to know what nonsense was making the rounds. So, Team Obama created an email address – firstname.lastname@example.org – that the public could use to alert officials to the kind of viral messages their weird uncle who watches Fox News all day liked to send around.
The right went from zero to apoplectic with amazing speed, insisting that the Democratic administration was collecting Americans’ online contact information and building “enemies lists” based on conservatives who distributed deceptive political emails. By August 2009, the White House pulled the plug on the project.
History isn’t repeating itself, but it is rhyming.
The Trump administration escalated its conflict with the tech industry on Wednesday, unveiling a website that asks people who think their viewpoints have been censored by social media platforms to share their stories – and their contact information.
President Trump, who seems to relish little more than a tweet storm, has repeatedly attacked Google, Facebook and Twitter for what he alleges is their bias against and suppression of conservative users. The companies have repeatedly denied those accusations.
The website published by the White House on Wednesday took those complaints to a new level, marrying the president’s online grievances to a data-gathering operation that could help him mobilize potential supporters during his re-election campaign.
Trump’s bizarre conspiracy theories about tech platforms, alas, are not new. The president has never been able to substantiate any of his claims – many of which appear to be based on confusion about how the platforms work – but he and other Republican leaders have convinced many conservatives that they’re victims of rascally liberals at Google, Facebook, and Twitter, who secretly want to keep the right down.
In fact, the president has at times suggested the White House is engaged in some kind of informal investigation into the social-media giants.
But it’s one thing for Trump to peddle conspiracy theories and encourage conservatives to see themselves as victims; it’s something else to exploit these odd beliefs to collect contact information.
And in this case, that’s precisely what the White House is doing. As the New York Times’ report noted, when people submit their “censorship” claims, they’re also supposed to provide Team Trump with their name, age, ZIP code, phone number, and citizenship status.
A Washington Post report added, “The Trump administration declined Wednesday to address what it planned to do with the data it’s amassing.”