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White House Social Media Summit Recap


Now we'd like to call attention to an event you might have missed what with all the other news this past week and, frankly, because events like this seem to happen with some frequency in this administration. We're talking about a gathering Thursday at the White House. It was called a Social Media Summit, but no one from the largest platforms - Twitter, Facebook and Google - was included. Instead, the guest list included far-right extremists, people with a record of creating and trying to spread false conspiracy theories and racist tropes as well as a handful of members of Congress and some more mainstream conservatives. And a fistfight almost broke out.

Katie Rogers is a White House correspondent for The New York Times, and she live-tweeted the event. And we asked her to join us now and tell us more about it. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

KATIE ROGERS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So before we get into the details, describe for us, again, who was invited, and what was the stated goal?

ROGERS: Sure. So the whole thing was cooked up by Dan Scavino, who's the president's social media director, you know, in cooperation with the president. So the two of them invited 200 of the president's closest Internet supporters to come to the White House. It included a lot of people who hold sort of extremist views and spread the sort of stuff across the Internet that you're talking about. But it also included organizations like the Heritage Foundation. It included conservative-leaning media - channel's called TheBlaze. So it was this sort of mix of fringe figures, conservative sort of institutions and then conservative media. So the president - when he took the stage, he said, I'm with, you know, journalists and influencers. So it was this sort of parallel universe I guess of Internet figures and journalists. But we don't see them that way, of course.

MARTIN: So what was the point of it?

ROGERS: Ostensibly, the point of it was to talk about stories of discrimination against conservatives online. This is a big talking point for the president who believes that he and his supporters have been muffled online by platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter. In May, the White House published a website that asked people to log on, give their contact information and citizenship data, by the way, and then also examples of times that they had been sort of mistreated.

So, yeah, that was, ostensibly, the reason to have this summit. But there was actually - the public-facing part of this summit had very little of that. It was this very hour-long meandering speech by the president about his own Twitter account, his hair, house flies, Democrats, socialism...

MARTIN: Are you serious - hair?

ROGERS: It was like a - yeah. It was a bit like a - it was the closest thing to a campaign rally that I have seen inside the White House.

MARTIN: Inside the White House. OK. Well, it's one thing for the president and his adult children, say - who do follow some of these personalities as well - to follow them and to retweet them. But inviting to the White House - was there some particular message being sent with that?

ROGERS: I mean, I think that there's no stronger signal that this crowd of people - they're legitimized in his mind by a visit to the White House. You can't send a more of a stronger signal than that.

MARTIN: And there was - as I mentioned earlier, like, some sort of a confrontation broke out between former - a former White House aide who was invited...


MARTIN: ...And a reporter for Playboy of all things, and so what was that all about?

ROGERS: So this columnist/reporter - he's quite opinionated in White House briefings - rest in peace. His name's Brian Karem. He had said something to the group right as the president was going in. He said you're eager for demonic possession to the group or something like that. I didn't hear that because my eyes were on the president, frankly. Like, I'm supposed to watch him.

And then, out of the - my eyeline to my left comes Sebastian Gorka, the former aide you're talking about, rushing at Brian, saying, are you threatening me in the Rose Garden? He's coming toward the press barriers. So then, I hold up my phone and begin filming because I think that some sort of physical altercation is going to happen. And I think Brian had said something like, let's take it outside, let's talk outside. And that got Sebastian Gorka amped. And then, other people started chanting his name. And it just turned into this - I don't know, just very WWE sort of preening match and...


ROGERS: ...In the Rose Garden of all places.

MARTIN: So I'm just going to ask you to tell me what you think this means. I know that your specific assignment is to cover the White House and tell the public what they're doing...


MARTIN: ...To the best of your ability. But what do you think this means? And I do want to point out that this is - this summit was - summit was held in a week in which the Fox News host Tucker Carlson said that the Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar was ungrateful for the opportunity to live in the United States. He implied that she hates America. He also implied that this is a reason why immigration should be curtailed. And I do wonder whether these two events are related in some way or what - does this mean something?

ROGERS: I think it means that in the run-up to 2020, it means that the president and the White House and his re-election campaign will all embrace figures like these. These figures will be legitimized. Their content will be disseminated and spread far and wide. I think that is something that - his political opponents probably need to think deeply about how they could counteract that kind of behavior online.

MARTIN: And, finally, to the best of your knowledge, does the White House think that event went well?

ROGERS: I'm sure they think it went well. In the end, they got what they wanted out of one of the members of the press corps, which is pro-Trump, anti-media content. They got what they wanted, and they were able to repackage that into videos, into content, into their own content...

MARTIN: Which was what? The confrontation...

ROGERS: The confrontation between Sebastian Gorka and Brian Karem. That's what they were looking for. Any interaction with them would have resulted in that. Unfortunately, that's what they got out of it. And then, I think the president weighed in on that altercation, saying, you know, Gorka won hands down or something. So, yes, they got more visibility, which is this - it's this somewhat confounding result for a group of people who feel like they're being marginalized because, obviously, you have the most respected house in the land to film your conflict videos in - you know? - and take it and disseminate it into your own, you know, Internet warfare trench.

MARTIN: That's Katie Rogers. She's a White House correspondent for The New York Times, and she was kind enough to stop by our studios in Washington, D.C. Katie, thank you so much.

ROGERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.