If you’ve made a habit of either watching Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight or following the anti-abortion groups that frequently appear on the program, then you’ve heard allegations that these organizations -- and the anti-choice misinformation they spread -- are being censored by any number of media platforms.
Most recently, Lila Rose, founder of the anti-abortion group Live Action, appeared on the June 26 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight and claimed that Twitter was censoring Live Action’s ads. Beyond alleging that Twitter was biased against the anti-abortion group, Rose also conveniently mentioned that Live Action had a $40,000 fundraising goal to meet within the week. Mere hours after Rose’s appearance, Live Action’s homepage carried a large ad decrying Twitter’s censorship and begging for donations to meet the fundraising deadline. By June 30, the organization had reached its fundraising goal and was asking supporters to continue donating in order to “guarantee” it could continue working “to expose the abortion industry.”
Rose is merely the latest person in a long list of anti-abortion extremists to baselessly allege censorship as a tactic in order to raise support and rile up right-wing media allies. When viewed as part of a larger pattern of behavior, it becomes clear that for these anti-abortion groups, crying censorship to any perceived slight functions as a strategy to gain attention and support for their anti-choice misinformation.
Crying censorship: An anti-choice tactic
During her June 26 appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight, Rose claimed that Twitter was refusing to promote ads from either her or Live Action’s Twitter accounts. Rose alleged that “a Twitter bot” had been telling them “for months,” that "this is banned, we won’t let you put this out.” According to Rose, “It took over a year for us to finally get from Twitter what’s wrong with these tweets. ... and finally they said that any tweet that shows an ultrasound, that shows a prenatal life and affirms it, that exposes Planned Parenthood, violates the hate and sensitive policy.” Carlson echoed Rose’s allegations and called Twitter’s policy “an atrocity.”
In a blog post, Live Action pointed to Twitter’s advertising policies against inflammatory content and alleged that Twitter told them to delete tweets “calling for the end of taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood,” tweets “of our undercover investigations into Planned Parenthood,” and tweets including ultrasound images of fetuses. Live Action included emails from Twitter support staff in the blog post, in which a Twitter representative cited tweets mentioning infanticide and another including a birth video as examples of content that violated the platform’s “sensitive advertising content policy.”
The “hate and sensitive policy” Rose cited is in actuality the platform’s ad policy on “hate content, sensitive topics, and violence.” In a statement to Carlson, the social media platform said, “Twitter has clear, transparent rules that every advertiser is required to follow, and the political viewpoints of an organization do not impact how these rules are applied.” Twitter’s hate content policy also covers “hate speech or advocacy”; “violence or threats of violence against people or animals”; “glorification of self-harm or related content”; organizations associated with promoting hate; and “offensive, vulgar, abusive or obscene content.”
Despite this, Live Action has continued to assert that Twitter is playing politics, citing a few tweets by Planned Parenthood to demonstrate the perceived imbalance. These Planned Parenthood tweets mention “extremists” and talk about Trump “defunding” the non-profit but without pointing an accusatory finger at a specific group. Many of Live Action's tweets which Twitter did not accept as ads target Planned Parenthood specifically.
Let’s not forgot -- Live Action is still free to tweet and keep such content on its Twitter account, as Rose clarified during an interview on EWTN News Nightly. The content merely does not meet clear and non-ideological standards for promotion or sponsorship, as dictated by Twitter’s easily located advertising policies.
Given these facts, it appears that Rose’s appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight and claims of censorship were part of a fundraising strategy for Live Action. As Rose told Carlson, “We’re actually doing a campaign right now to get people to fund Live Action and to get out the information that Twitter is trying to block using other platforms -- using Facebook, using YouTube, using the blogosphere, obviously coming on here and talking with you.”
After Rose’s June 26 appearance, Live Action sent a fundraising email about the segment, claiming that “Live Action is being suppressed” and asking supporters “to help us strengthen our efforts against the abortion industry.” Live Action’s censorship allegations also animated other right-wing media outlets. The Washington Times promoted its fundraising appeal, stating, “Looking to take their business elsewhere, Live Action started a campaign to raise money to inundate other social media platforms with the pro-life message.” On June 29, Christian Broadcasting Network published an article on Live Action’s claims about Twitter’s ad policy, at the end of which it stated that “Live Action has launched a campaign to compensate for their losses due to Twitter’s censoring,” and directed readers to Live Action’s fundraising page. Rose and Live Action also pushed the narrative on Twitter, using the hashtag #DontDeleteMe -- despite all content remaining publicly available on the platform.
In May 2017, the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress (CMP) circulated deceptive video footage that had been barred from release by a federal judge. The video quickly spread through social media accounts of anti-abortion leaders and groups before Judge William Orrick ordered all copies of the video be taken down as there was a heightened concern for the safety of abortion providers identified in the footage.
As copies of the video were removed following Orrick’s order, anti-choice activists claimed censorship had occurred and pointed a finger at almost every social media platform as potential culprits. During a May 31 appearance on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, Rose accused both YouTube and Twitter of participating in the “chilling effect right now on journalism that is the opposing viewpoint on abortion” by complying with the court order to remove the video. Live Action also claimed that YouTube had “caved to the abortion industry’s censorship pressure” while LifeSiteNews argued that video hosting websites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Vimeo were “on a witch hunt against the latest undercover Planned Parenthood video, deleting instances of it wherever they find it.”
The anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List accused YouTube of “partnering” with Planned Parenthood “to cover up the truth that #PPSellsBabyParts” -- a common social media hashtag among staunch anti-choice activists. Liz Wheeler of right-wing news outlet One America News Network (OANN) took personal offense when YouTube removed a clip of her show, Tipping Point, in which she played some of the barred footage. In a follow-up clip, amusingly available on OANN’s YouTube channel, Wheeler said YouTube was “trying to silence me” and asked, “What are liberals so afraid people will see that they’ll censor me to ensure nobody sees [footage from the barred video].”
Although anti-choice groups and right-wing media outlets alike cried censorship when various platforms removed the video, the fact remains that it was legally barred from release -- giving these platforms little choice even if they agreed with CMP’s highly discredited claims. Undeterred, these groups and outlets even extended their criticisms to attack Orrick and attempted to have him removed from CMP’s case -- an effort that another federal judge ultimately dismissed as lacking merit. Despite claiming the video was being censored, anti-choice groups still (somehow!) continued to re-post and spread the video across the internet after Orrick’s order.
By alleging it was being censored, Operation Rescue effectively sounded the alarm for other anti-abortion groups to use their own rankings on Google's search results to claim discrimination and promote their content. Within a day of Operation Rescue's initial post, similar stories were running on LifeNews and the right-wing outlet OneNewsNow. Operation Rescue also sent a fundraising email asking for support to “launch a massive campaign to ensure our critical abortion research and pro-life content is available, and no longer pushed down by the pro-abortion radicals at Google.”
Every January, anti-abortion groups and media outlets allege that mainstream media are censoring their protest, called the March for Life, against the Roe v. Wade decision. The supposed lack of coverage has galled anti-abortion groups to such an extent that they started an umbrella group called “Alliance for Fair Coverage of Life Issues,” which primarily focuses on the “March for Life Media Censorship.” Many members of the group have complained about the “media blackout” of the March for Life on major media platforms. Rep. Alex Mooney (R-WV), who is one of the two politicians in the Alliance, stated, “The liberal media’s consistent censorship of the annual March for Life is nothing short of shameful.”
However, as some right-wing media outlets have themselves suggested, describing coverage of the March for Life as suffering from “consistent censorship” is inaccurate. After the most recent March for Life, the extreme right-wing outlet Church Militant praised the media because the “2017 March for Life is receiving more media coverage than ever.” Church Militant pointed out that C-SPAN and CNN livestreamed the march, while NPR featured stories from attendees. In addition, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and ABC News all ran stories about the march.
The March for Life also benefited from the attention garnered by the Women's March in January 2017. Several anti-abortion groups and individuals tried to co-opt the message of the Women’s March to push a so-called “feminist” anti-choice message. The Women’s March ultimately adopted a pro-choice message, but the anti-abortion groups still gained substantial media coverage from being supposedly “banned” from being sponsors of the Women’s March.
In March, anti-choice groups and media outlets began crying censorship when anti-abortion chalk messages scrawled by a chapter of Students for Life of America (SFLA) were scrubbed from sidewalks at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. The hate group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) came to SFLA’s defense declaring, “University officials can’t chalk up their censorship to ‘following orders’ to enforce an unconstitutional campus policy” on sidewalk chalking. SFLA President Kristan Hawkins agreed, saying, “Too frequently we see that public colleges and universities feel they can engage in censorship of a student group just because officials don’t agree with the viewpoint of those students.”
In reality, the messages had been removed overnight during a regular cleaning process, and had nothing to do with the content of the chalking.
Hawkins also used Tucker Carlson Tonight’s right-wing platform to raise another issue of censorship in schools. During the June 2 appearance on the show, Hawkins supported a high school student who claimed her school had denied her permission to form a SFLA chapter because it was “too controversial.” According to school officials, the students simply didn’t follow the requirements for club formation and would be approved once they did.
In 2014, ADF successfully argued McCullen v. Coakley before the Supreme Court, striking down a Massachusetts “buffer zone” law that banned anti-choice protestors inside a 35-feet parameter around abortion clinics. ADF claimed that this buffer zone in which anti-abortion extremists were not allowed to protest created a “censorship zone where the First Amendment doesn’t apply.” Equating buffer zones with censorship has been a common tactic of anti-choice groups when challenging laws that mandate them. For example, ADF also used the “censorship zone” argument when arguing against a Pittsburgh ordinance. Similarly, the anti-abortion group Created Equal claimed Ohio’s 15-feet buffer zone constituted a “censorship zone” that infringed on its right to protest outside abortion clinics.
Despite censorship claims from anti-abortion groups, buffer zones are essential for abortion access and to deter threats of violence against patients, providers, and clinics. The Massachusetts ordinance that was struck down in McCullen v. Coakley was originally introduced because of a 1994 shooting at a Brookline, MA clinic that killed two people. While anti-abortion protesters complain about the ability to spout their hateful rhetoric, violence at abortion clinics has not only continued but increased in recent years; in 2015, a shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic killed three people and injured nine more. Data from the National Abortion Federation (NAF) shows that protests outside abortion clinics rose in 2016 to the highest level since NAF began tracking them in 1977. There was also an increase in “a wide range of intimidation tactics meant to disrupt the provision of health care at facilities, including vandalism, picketing, obstruction, invasion, trespassing, burglary, stalking, assault and battery, and bomb threats.”
As recent cases in Kentucky and Missouri have shown, some anti-choice groups intentionally harass abortion providers or engage in civil disobedience outside clinics. When these groups face backlash or legal pushback, they invoke censorship as a tactic in order to continue their campaigns of harassment.
Crying censorship: An anti-choice tactic
These examples are wide-ranging, reaching from social media platforms, to news coverage, to sidewalk access, but the common thread -- and indeed, the underlying tactic at play -- is anti-abortion groups labeling a perceived injustice against them as censorship. These groups have much to gain and very little to lose by employing this tactic. By claiming they’ve been unjustly censored, anti-abortion groups not only elevate their lies and misinformation, they are also able to incite followers and raise funds by claiming they are being persecuted.
Crying censorship is a win-win tactic for anti-abortion extremists. Meanwhile, clinic intimidation and violence continues to rise as right-wing media agitate their increasingly polarized base to support anti-abortion causes, and an increasing number of laws are being implemented to limit abortion rights. Anti-choice organizations also have the benefit of President Donald Trump’s administration being filled with anti-choice extremists already on a rampage against abortion and contraception access.
But please, though you have an overtly anti-choice administration that relies on a direct pipeline of information from anti-abortion extremists, continue to feign outrage about being unable to place ads on Twitter.