In the lead-up to the midterm elections, anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List) has ginned up controversy, claiming to have been censored by Facebook, which removed two SBA List ads urging people to “vote pro-life.” Facebook said it removed the ads for violating content rules about depicting medical procedures or conditions. Outlets should not be fooled: Alleging censorship is a well-worn tactic used by anti-abortion organizations big and small to promote misinformation and raise money.
On October 24, SBA List tweeted that Facebook was “censoring” the organization because it had pulled two of its 2018 midterm elections ads, which urged people to “vote pro-life” and to oppose a candidate who “supports painful late-term abortions.” The two ads presented stories of children born prematurely and quoted their parents urging voters not to support what the ads described as “late-term abortions.”
It is important to note that neither ad depicted the reality of abortion -- performed later in a pregnancy or otherwise. SBA List attempted to conflate the birth of premature infants with an inaccurate characterization of later abortions, claiming those procedures induce fetal pain, which is not supported by scientific evidence.
In an email exchange posted by SBA List, Facebook said that at least one of the ads was pulled because Facebook doesn’t “allow ads that depict medical procedures or conditions”; such content is deemed to “feature sensational or graphic content,” which is not allowed because of its “highly sensitive nature.” Both of the ads showed premature babies in a medical setting.
SBA List has a history of either intentionally manufacturing or alleging censorship claims to gin up controversy, which is part of a longstanding conservative misinformation strategy. The group’s current cry of censorship is the latest in a long line of similar claims by anti-abortion advocates who use the tactic to generate attention and to raise money. In October 2017, SBA List contended that Twitter had censored the organization when it deleted an ad targeting Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring in the 2017 election, seemingly for the use of inflammatory language. Citing this example and other anti-abortion censorship allegations, SBA List asked people to “make a gift today to get our pro-life message past Twitter’s censorship” and to “fight back against Twitter’s censorship.” SBA List also sent out an email in April 2018 detailing instances in which the group claimed to have been censored by social media companies and directed people to “please make a generous donation of $250 to help win the fight against pro-abortion Silicon Valley elites.”
This latest censorship claim by SBA List is no different. The group sent out a fundraising email after the ads were pulled, asking people to “Please 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.” SBA List also tweeted that “deleting these ads just weeks before the midterm elections advances the pro-abortion argument" and again claimed that “censoring a #prolife ad that respectfully exposes the brutality of late abortions” meant that Facebook was “publicly taking a stand that they SUPPORT painful late-term abortions of VIABLE children.” In a press release, SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said that “the clock is ticking to Election Day, and Facebook is stifling our ability to get our message out about politicians who support brutal late-term abortions.”
Right-wing and anti-abortion outlets frequently report on these censorship claims uncritically, often failing to offer any push back. A particularly egregious source of this media behavior is (unsurprisingly) Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who has hosted Live Action’s Lila Rose multiple times to pontificate about the alleged censorship of anti-abortion views by social media platforms and other sources. SBA List’s latest claim was also picked up and promoted by Life News, Breitbart, and Washington Free Beacon. But, more troublingly, it was also treated credibly by Politico in its Politico Pulse newsletter, which briefly reported on the dispute without questioning the claims or including Facebook’s perspective. And Politico’s isn't the only newsletter that has carried water for SBA List. The October 30 edition of The Washington Post's health care newsletter, The Health 202, spotlighted another ad placed by the group targeting Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). The Health 202 has uncritically promoted SBA List campaigns or talking points in the past as well.
SBA List’s tactic of claiming censorship is disingenuous. It is a part of a larger pattern of behavior by anti-abortion advocates -- and conservative media more broadly -- to exploit any perceived slight against them as a strategy to gain attention and financial support for their misinformation. But conservative claims of social media censorship have been soundly refuted. When outlets pick up these claims without pushing back or contextualizing them, they are spreading a false right-wing talking point that conservative voices are disproportionately targeted on social media platforms.