During an April 10 Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing about the so-called “censorship” of conservative content by social media platforms, senators continually (and inaccurately) claimed Twitter's temporary suspension of an account associated with the anti-abortion movie Unplanned was evidence of wider bias. Although allegations of widespread conservative censorship by social media companies are inaccurate, the accusation itself is familiar among anti-abortion extremists, who have long deployed it as a tactic to rally supporters and raise funds.
Soon after Unplanned’s release in March, a Twitter account associated with the movie was temporarily suspended and reactivated. The Hollywood Reporter explained that the movie’s account “was not suspended on purpose, but rather was linked to another account that had violated Twitter's rules.” Because of this, the Unplanned account was soon reactivated and its followers restored -- but not before right-wing media expressed outrage and alleged that the film had been “shadow banned” (a common and completely false conservative claim). Although Twitter’s FAQ clearly explains that follower and tweet counts “will be fully restored within 24 hours of reactivation,” right-wing and anti-abortion media continued to treat the incident as yet another example of censorship by tech companies.
This is far from the first time that anti-abortion groups or outlets have alleged censorship to rile up supporters or solicit funds. Lila Rose, founder of the anti-abortion group Live Action, told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson in 2017 that Twitter was censoring her organization’s ads. In reality, the content remained on the platform -- Live Action simply wasn’t allowed to promote the ads as such because they violated several of Twitter’s content policies. In other instances, this tactic has been deployed by anti-abortion groups to lambast Google’s page rankings or allege widespread media bias against right-wing or anti-abortion views.
Beyond riling up their supporters, this tactic is often deployed by anti-abortion groups to fundraise in the name of fighting back against alleged social media censorship. The anti-abortion organization Susan B. Anthony List has leveraged similar allegations to sway voters and raise funds for specific campaigns. During the 2018 midterm elections, SBA List accused Facebook of removing its ads urging people to “vote pro-life.” Although Facebook actually disallowed the ads because the platform doesn’t “allow ads that depict medical procedures or conditions,” SBA List framed the move as another example of censorship and urged supporters to “RUSH a contribution … to help us fight back and get this ad in front of voters in key swing-states DESPITE the ongoing censorship of pro-life voices by the abortion lobby.”
This Senate hearing is only the latest example of Republican lawmakers’ willingness to entertain inaccurate talking points claiming censorship of conservative views. In 2017, then-Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) deployed this tactic to generate attention and garner support after announcing her run for retiring Sen. Bob Corker's (R-TN) seat, which she ultimately won. Blackburn referred to this incident during the April 10 hearing as well -- even receiving an apology from Twitter’s representative.
Early in the hearing, while questioning witnesses from Facebook and Twitter, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) demanded to know why a 2017 tweet from SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser had allegedly been censored. Although the tweet was never actually removed from Twitter (and in fact remains up today), The Washington Post noted that the tweet had originally been rejected from paid promotion for violating that platform’s “health and pharmaceutical products and services policy.” During the hearing, Twitter’s witness affirmed that SBA List was generally “in good standing” for the purposes of advertising on the platform. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) also questioned why several of SBA List’s Facebook ads depicting premature babies in a medical setting were removed. Although the ads were ultimately allowed to run on the platform, Lee implied that they were initially flagged due to rampant liberal bias at Facebook -- an allegation the witness denied.
During the hearing’s second session, Unplanned and SBA List were both given a platform to repeat talking points about the alleged censorship of anti-abortion content online. In his opening testimony, Unplanned co-director Chuck Konzelman claimed that the temporary suspension of the film’s Twitter account was “suspect” and credited right-wing media personalities such as Fox News host Shannon Bream and National Rifle Association spokesperson Dana Loesch for raising awareness of the incident. SBA List’s Vice President of Government Affairs Marilyn Musgrave testified that her organization had “been fighting censorship of our content for more than two years” alongside other anti-abortion organizations that she claimed had experienced similar difficulties.
When conservatives have previously attempted to hold hearings investigating the so-called bias of tech platforms, the results have featured laughable conspiracy theories about liberals censoring conservative content. As this latest hearing demonstrated, anti-abortion and right-wing media will continue to falsely cry censorship to signal-boost their deceptive content, rile up supporters, and raise funds. Given this track record, perhaps the only thing more predictable than right-wing and anti-abortion media’s invocation of censorship to market Unplanned was Senate Republicans’ willingness to give a platform to such a transparent ploy in the first place.