Memes are transforming conservative politics — and posing new challenges to social media companies grappling with their policies for political content.
The latest example of boundary pushing is a violent parody depicting President Trump shooting journalists and attacking political opponents (both Democrats and Republicans). The video — which had been available on YouTube for more than a year — saw a spike in traffic Monday after it aired over the weekend during a conference hosted by the pro-Trump group American Priority at the president’s Miami-area golf resort.
Critics warned the video could incite real-world violence, but YouTube said the video does not violate its policies because it is ‘‘clearly fictional.’’ The company on Monday added an age restriction to the video requiring viewers to confirm they are adults before they can watch it.
‘‘For content containing violence that is clearly fictional, we age-restrict and display a warning interstitial. We applied these protections to this video,’’ Ivy Choi, a spokeswoman for YouTube, told The Washington Post.
The violent video also remains available on Facebook. ‘‘Because this video was disturbing, we put it behind a warning screen and people under 18 will be blocked from seeing it,’’ Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said.
The responses by social media companies highlight the constant balancing act of the tech companies. Silicon Valley giants are promising to do more to ensure their platforms do not incite real-world violence or amplify disinformation amid pressure from politicians around the globe. But they’re also trying not to go too far in policing content, especially as officials — including Trump — accuse the companies of political bias against conservatives.
The companies’ dilemma is only intensifying as Election Day 2020 gets closer, and the Democrats’ impeachment proceedings against the president result in an even more politically inflammatory environment.
The controversy also brought greater scrutiny to the Twitter account Carpe Donktum, who runs the pro-Trump meme site MemeWorld. The YouTube account that posted the parody video showing Trump engaged in a massacre inside a church, TheGeekzTeam, is a regular contributor to the site. Carpe Donktum posted memes making fun of the criticism that the spoof video could incite real-world violence.
In a statement, Carpe Donktum, who attended a social media conference at White House, said the video was ‘‘CLEARLY satirical’’ and that ‘‘no reasonable person would believe that this video was a call to action, or an endorsement of violence towards the media.’’
On Monday afternoon, Carpe Donktum’s Twitter account was briefly banned for, he said, breaking the social media site’s copyright rules with another video. But he was swiftly back on the platform. Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The video is also sparking more intense backlash against the president’s ties to far-right meme makers. Representative Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, who leads the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called the video ‘‘abhorrent,’’ and criticized Trump for having ‘‘promoted extremist voices’’ for political gain. Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, meanwhile, said the incident was ‘‘disturbing, but frankly not surprising.’’
‘‘From the beginning, Mr. Trump has cultivated support from some of the worst corners of the internet. He’s used his office to elevate this toxic internet culture while ignoring the real challenges we face on social media,’’ Warner said in a statement.
The president’s ties to such meme makers were highlighted earlier this year, when he hosted many far-right provocateurs at the White House for a ‘‘Social Media Summit.’’ Stephanie Grisham, the president’s press secretary, said yesterday that Trump ‘‘has not yet seen the video,’’ and would watch later, ‘‘but based upon everything he has heard, he strongly condemns this video.’’