Trolling on the internet was once a thankless pastime. Make edgy jokes on the right message board, get your sarcastic memes noticed by the right people, and you might score some retweets and Reddit upvotes, but that was about the extent of it.
For today’s right-wing trolls, though, there is a bigger prize on the table: a red-carpet visit to the White House.
On Thursday, President Trump is assembling a group of his most ardent online supporters for a White House “social media summit.” The guest list has not been publicly released, but a motley grab bag of pro-Trump influencers have taken to Twitter to brag about their invitations, including James O’Keefe, the right-wing founder of Project Veritas; Bill Mitchell, a pro-Trump activist who has promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory; and a pseudonymous Twitter user, “CarpeDonktum,” who is perhaps best known for creating a doctored video of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. that Mr. Trump retweeted.
The group will have “a robust conversation on the opportunities and challenges of today’s online environment,” according to Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, who said last month that Mr. Trump would speak at the summit. Conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and Turning Point USA have also said they would attend.
The meeting’s guest list has been a hot topic among the often-fractious online right. Several right-wing influencers have complained about not being invited, including Laura Loomer, an activist who has been barred by Twitter and Facebook. Ben Garrison, a pro-Trump cartoonist, was originally scheduled to attend, but the White House rescinded his invitation this week, according to Politico, after critics accused him of drawing an anti-Semitic cartoon.
The summit illuminates the rising influence of online tastemakers within the political establishment. But it also has the makings of a West Wing pity party. Right-wing internet personalities, including Mr. Trump himself, have accused social media companies of being biased against them. Recently, Mr. Trump suggested that Twitter “should be sued because of what’s happening with the bias,” and in May, the White House released a “share your story” tool to collect anecdotes from people who feel their social media accounts have been banned unfairly.
Twitter and Facebook were not invited to the White House to defend themselves, two people familiar with the companies’ plans said. But executives from both companies have denied targeting conservatives because of their political views. (Whether some of their rules, like prohibitions on targeted harassment and dehumanizing language, have a disproportionate impact on accounts that support the president is another matter.)
In reality, few have benefited more from the megaphones provided by these platforms than Mr. Trump and his supporters. Right-wing pages are among the most popular political news outlets on Facebook, and Mr. Trump remains one of Facebook’s biggest clients. Since May 2018, his re-election campaign has purchased more than $ 10 million worth of Facebook ads, more than any other candidate or group.
Some experts believe that by rallying his supporters around bias claims, Mr. Trump is trying to work the referees ahead of the 2020 election, and intimidate social media companies out of enforcing their rules. Those rules, which include steps taken after the 2016 election to reduce the spread of misinformation and hateful content, have resulted in bans and takedowns for a number of high-profile conservatives.
“The summit agenda is clearly political,” said Jennifer Grygiel, a professor at Syracuse University who studies social media. “The president wants the platforms to serve his political agenda, and recent changes have reduced the amount of influence available to him.”
Mr. Trump may also be betting that the success of his 2020 re-election bid will hinge, at least in part, on the enthusiasm of his highest-profile internet supporters. In 2016, a “meme army” rose from the depths of 4chan and Reddit to support Mr. Trump’s candidacy by turning out a steady stream of pro-Trump images, videos and animation — the best of which were often shared by Mr. Trump and his inner circle on social media. Since his election, Mr. Trump has continued to look to his internet supporters as a kind of crowdsourced media consultancy, from which he draws slogans, video mash-ups and “Game of Thrones”-inspired memes.
“I think the White House social media summit is an opportunity to say thank you for the community that has been at the president’s side these last three years and enlist their help in the fights to come,” said Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist.
In the past, politicians have kept their internet fandoms at arm’s length. But as amateur media proves more effective at engaging voters online than slick, overproduced campaign ads, these efforts are increasingly being solicited by the candidates themselves.
“The stuff online that people dismiss as memes — that’s the way to motivate people,” CarpeDonktum, the pro-Trump memesmith, told my colleague Charlie Warzel this year. “It’s the viral political marketing of the future.”
Democrats have also embraced the gritty, lo-fi aesthetic of internet memes. Mike Gravel, the former Alaska senator who is among the Democratic candidates for president, turned over his social media accounts to teenage supporters, whose pro-Gravel memes have made him a cult favorite online. Andrew Yang, the businessman who is running for the Democratic nomination on a platform of universal basic income, has tapped his online supporters, known as the “Yang Gang,” for catchphrases and campaign ideas. Other Democratic candidates have been experimenting with Instagram-ready moments — Elizabeth Warren’s kitchen beers, Beto O’Rourke’s dental appointment — with varying success.
Mr. Trump’s use of internet imagery is cruder than most. Last month, reporters began noticing that his re-election campaign had been using stock photo images in its targeted social media ads, including an ad featuring images of a “small American business” that turned out to be a storefront in Tokyo.
Fidelity to the facts, of course, has never been a hallmark of meme culture. A bigger worry for Mr. Trump, as his re-election campaign heats up, is that some of the largest repositories of pro-Trump internet content are drying up. Reddit’s largest pro-Trump forum, known as r/the_donald, was quarantined by moderators last month after users were found to be making threats against police officers and public officials. 8chan, a message board known as a hotbed of alt-right vitriol, was served with an F.B.I. search warrant in April, in response to evidence that the suspect in the Poway, Calif., synagogue shooting had been inspired by posts he saw there. And a number of Trump-supporting internet figures were barred by Facebook and Instagram this year for violating its policy against “dangerous individuals and organizations.”
These moves seem to have re-energized pro-Trump internet influencers in recent months, by uniting them around a shared concern over censorship.
It is ironic, of course, to complain about being persecuted from the cushy perch of a White House summit. And it reflects the shifting attitudes toward power that many pro-Trump internet influencers have had to adopt since Mr. Trump’s election, as they have gone from being anti-establishment mischief-makers to a state-sanctioned cheering section.
Whatever else it does, the White House’s social media function may serve the valuable purpose of shifting attention from the halls of Washington, where Mr. Trump holds ultimate power, to the platforms of Silicon Valley, where he doesn’t. The internet, after all, still loves an underdog.