Yesterday, President Donald Trump tweeted that Google search was artificially promoting “left-wing media” writing negative stories about him. Trump promised that the situation “will be addressed,” and his economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the White House was “taking a look” at whether Google needs to be regulated. Later, he issued more veiled threats, saying that web platforms “better be careful” as they’re “treading on very, very troubled territory.”
These sound like big threats, and regulating search engine behavior would be a huge deal, especially since Trump has virtually no evidence that search is “rigged.” And the Trump administration has sabotaged tech companies with harsh immigration limits and erratic trade policy. But Trump also has a history of offhandedly accusing big tech companies of crimes or threatening them with political consequences, then dropping the issue.
So while yesterday’s statements promoted a shallow, conspiratorial understanding of a complicated technology, they don’t mean the White House will seriously look at regulating Google; they just provide fuel for other people who are interested in doing so. For context, here what’s happened after Trump targeted some other companies.
Last month, Gizmodo wrote that Twitter was demoting some conservative accounts in search results — a move that another outlet called “shadow banning,” although it doesn’t meet the definition of that term at all. Trump lashed out at Twitter on… well, on his Twitter account, saying “we will look into this discriminatory and illegal practice at once.”
Twitter “SHADOW BANNING” prominent Republicans. Not good. We will look into this discriminatory and illegal practice at once! Many complaints.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2018
Just to keep things straight: the “shadow bans” didn’t involve any banning, and Twitter can legally ban anyone it wants. (A court affirmed this right in California last week when it ruled that white nationalist Jared Taylor couldn’t sue the site for kicking him off.) It’s possible Trump is, in fact, “looking into” the issue, and he mentioned Twitter again during an interview with Reuters this month, saying that “when they take certain people off of Twitter or Facebook and they’re making that decision, that is really a dangerous thing.” But if the White House had an investigation underway, that’s exactly the point at which most people would mention it.
That said, Google, Facebook, and Twitter will face Congress next month in a hearing. Lawmakers may well use his tweets as ammunition, and unlike Trump, they’ve spent months actually threatening to change laws to enforce political neutrality online.
Trump has rejected evidence that foreign propagandists tried to influence the 2016 presidential election, and as Facebook started sharing suspicious political ads allegedly from a Russian “troll farm,” he suggested Facebook was part of a conspiracy. “Facebook was always anti-Trump. The Networks were always anti-Trump hence, Fake News,” he tweeted. “Collusion?”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 27, 2017
Now, Trump did recently tweet that collusion was not a crime. But as The Washington Post pointed out, he’s called to investigate other people’s collusion several times, so he’s pretty clearly accusing Facebook of shady dealings.
As with Twitter, it’s not clear how the White House would even begin investigating collusion to (as I can best interpret his statement) algorithmically promote anti-Trump content by major newspapers. Facebook has come under fire from other sources, as conservative politicians have repeatedly accused the company of censoring or artificially deflating traffic to conservative pages, although those claims are often tenuous. So Trump’s tweet could help boost the signal of their complaints. But as a specific allegation, the collusion charge is bluster.
A month before the 2016 election, Trump said he would not approve AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner. “AT&T is buying Time Warner, and thus CNN, a deal we will not approve in my administration because it’s too much concentration of power in the hands of too few,” he promised at a rally. This is a totally legitimate assessment. But Trump’s callout of the network CNN, which he loathes, implied he was motivated by more than antitrust concerns.
Once Trump took office, the Justice Department sued to block the deal, despite antitrust chief Makan Delrahim previously saying the merger wasn’t a “major antitrust problem.” AT&T suggested Trump was meddling in the deal to punish CNN, and it unsuccessfully demanded agency communication logs that would prove this. Trump had to tell reporters that he didn’t make the decision, although his lawyer Rudy Giuliani later contradicted that claim.
Either way, the Justice Department made a surprisingly weak case in court, and a judge overruled its concerns and approved the merger. (The Justice Department has appealed the decision, but the merger is already completed.) Trump’s public rebuke hadn’t threatened AT&T — in fact, the Justice Department complained that the company was using it as a “get-out-of-jail-free card.”
Amazon is one of the few companies Trump seems truly committed to fighting, in part because of an allegedly obsessive feud with its CEO Jeff Bezos. In late March and early April, he began accusing the company of avoiding taxes, abusing the US Postal Service’s shipping rates, driving smaller companies out of business, and using The Washington Post (which Bezos also owns) as a secret lobbying agency.
Why is the United States Post Office, which is losing many billions of dollars a year, while charging Amazon and others so little to deliver their packages, making Amazon richer and the Post Office dumber and poorer? Should be charging MUCH MORE!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 29, 2017
As we’ve written before, several of these claims are acknowledged, if misleadingly written, complaints about Amazon. In this case, Trump actually followed through by ordering a review of the Postal Service’s finances. The White House then proposed a plan to privatize the service, and Amazon joined a new retailer lobby to oppose raising shipping costs, putting Trump and Amazon in a more traditional political conflict.
It’s worth noting, however, that Trump wasn’t making the kind of nebulous, unprecedented claims he’s made about social networks. State governments spent years pressuring Amazon to collect sales tax, and once the task force started work, the debate shifted toward postal service privatization rather than, say, Trump’s allegations that The Washington Post is an Amazon catspaw.
Trump’s policies have caused serious, long-term problems for a wide range of tech companies. Small gadget startups rely on Chinese manufacturing and are threatened by trade war tariffs, while limits on H1-B visas makes it harder for large companies to recruit employees overseas. Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and others have officially opposed Trump’s immigration policies, and several companies have faced internal strife as employees protest contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
But when Trump rants about how a certain company “better be careful,” it’s a less-than-credible warning — unless somebody else is ready to follow through.