President Donald Trump speaks during the "Presidential Social Media Summit" in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, July 11, 2019, in Washington. Credit: Evan Vucci | AP

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump assailed Facebook, Google and Twitter on Thursday, accusing them of exhibiting “terrible bias” and silencing his supporters, at a White House “social media summit” that critics chastised for giving a prominent stage to some of the Internet’s most controversial, incendiary voices.

For Trump, the conference represented his highest profile broadside yet against Silicon Valley after months of accusations that tech giants censor conservative users and websites. In doing so, the president also sought to rally his widely followed online allies, whom he described as “journalists and influencers” that together can reach roughly half a billion people, entering the 2020 presidential election.

“Some of you are extraordinary. The crap you think of is unbelievable,” Trump said.

Trump delivered his winding diatribe against Facebook, Google and Twitter – charges of political bias that all three companies long have denied – at an event at the White House featuring Republican lawmakers, GOP campaign strategists and social-media meme makers, a move that led some critics to express dismay that the president actually aimed to use the policy summit as a re-election push.

But Democratic lawmakers and watchdog groups said they were most alarmed that Trump had invited supporters who have a history of targeting the president’s political opponents with inflammatory tweets, misleading videos and hard-to-debunk conspiracy theories. At one point, the president praised James O’Keefe, the founder of Project Veritas, which has released widely criticized, highly edited videos of his subjects.

“Somebody said he’s controversial,” Trump said. “He’s truthful.”

In response, critics fretted that Trump had essentially endorsed their controversial tactics in the early days of the 2020 presidential race.

“This has the appearance not of a social media summit but a political rally and call for the right,” said Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia. “The fact that some of the most extreme voices on social media are coming to the White House, and they get a forum to complain about how often they’re retweeted, and that the actual platform companies aren’t even invited, smacks of the absurd.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, meanwhile, charged that the president is “essentially conducting a hate summit at the White House,” said Heidi Beirich, the director of the group’s work to track online extremism.

Facebook, Google and Twitter each declined comment.

For much of the summit, Twitter appeared to be down, an outage the company said it was investigating. Outside the gathering, Trump’s aides appeared to line the hallways with poster boards calling attention to the tech industry’s alleged tactics for suppressing conservatives’ speech — along with at least one tweet from Trump himself calling him “the best” at using the service.

And Trump threatened additional scrutiny to come, promising to bring big tech companies to Washington for an upcoming meeting while directing federal agencies to explore “all regulatory and legislative solutions to protect free speech.”

Trump has skewered Facebook, Google and Twitter for months on allegations that they’re biased against conservatives, even accusing them of trying to rig the election. In March, for example, he said the companies had engaged in “collusion” and worked in opposition to a “certain group of people that happen to be in power, that happen to have won the election.” Repeatedly, the president also has threatened to investigate or regulate Facebook, Google and Twitter, sparking a series of hearings and similar calls for tough new laws among Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Trump has not provided evidence for his allegations that the tech companies seek to undermine Republicans or U.S. elections, and some of the examples he’s cited to illustrate the industry’s bias have been debunked. For example, the president has accused Twitter of tampering with his follower count, a charge he repeated Thursday. The company long has said that users with large followings often experience fluctuations as it removes spam.

“A lot of bad things are happening,” he said.

Trump’s attacks often have come in response to efforts by Facebook, Google and Twitter to remove hate speech, threats of violence and other troubling content from their platforms. These tech giants have been under pressure to address a litany of online ills, including the rise of disinformation, three years after Russian agents spread falsehoods on social media during the 2016 election. But Trump and his close allies have decried some of social media’s content-moderation policies as censorship, putting those companies in a political bind.

“This is largely, I think, a political event,” said Michael Beckerman, the president of the Internet Association, a Washington-based trade group that represents Facebook, Google and other tech giants. He stressed there is “no conservative bias on our platforms.”

Some of the conservatives that Trump consulted Thursday have adopted controversial tactics on social media – and even have been disciplined by Facebook, Google or Twitter for running afoul of their rules. That includes O’Keefe and Project Veritas whose secretly recorded video of Google drew Trump’s praise on Thursday.

“Project Veritas can be synergistic with the Trump administration to pull back the curtain surrounding Big Tech,” O’Keefe said in a statement online after receiving the invitation.

Other attendees included Ali Alexander, who sent the initial, inflammatory tweet questioning whether Sen. Kamala Harris of California, a Democratic presidential candidate, is actually an “American black,” and Jim Hoft, the Gateway Pundit founder who has long been faulted for spreading conspiracy theories online.

“After the 2016 election Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon (in advertising) decided the best way to prevent another Trump win was to silence conservative voices in America,” according to a statement from the Gateway Pundit site. “The tech giants in two years did more to destroy Freedom of Speech than at any other time in US history.”

Initially, the White House had invited Ben Garrison, whose cartoons long have provoked the ire of groups including the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center for including hateful imagery, including anti-Semitism. But the White House this week appeared to rescind its invitation, Garrison tweeted in a statement Wednesday, out of concern his presence would be a “media distraction from the president’s message.”

Trump also invited lawmakers including Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who have accused Twitter in the past of limiting the reach of their tweets. They were joined by organizations such as the Media Research Center, a conservative group that has called for the breakup of big tech companies, and PragerU, which produces right-leaning videos that it believes Google has censored – a matter the two sides are battling in court.

In an early morning series of tweets, Trump said that the focus of the conversation would be “the tremendous dishonesty, bias, discrimination and suppression practiced by certain companies,” though he didn’t mention any by name. “We will not let them get away with it much longer,” he added.

Trump also appeared to suggest social-media sites “would be driven out of business” once he leaves office in six years or more, acknowledging he had made a joke about exceeding presidential term limits.

Lawmakers bristled at the summit: Many said that the Trump administration had missed an opportunity to explore real challenges facing social media ahead of the 2020 election, amid heightened fears about the spread of hate speech and even harder-to-detect viral falsehoods.

“It’s not surprising that one of the loudest disseminators of misinformation is inviting known extremists and conspiracy theory peddlers to the White House social media summit,” said Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone, who leads the House’s top tech committee. “It’s a shame President Trump would prefer to fan the same fires of online social discord that Russia sparked in the 2016 election rather than bring real experts together to address the issue of content moderation in a thoughtful and rational manner.”