Anti-abortion groups and media outlets have a habit of claiming censorship in order to boost fundraising by ginning up outrage and support. Now this media manipulation tactic is being employed by a staunch anti-choice ally: Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).
On October 5, Blackburn announced a run for retiring Sen. Bob Corker’s (R-TN) seat. As part of this announcement, Blackburn’s campaign tweeted a short video advertising her right-wing bonafides, including her work as chair of the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, which was created to conduct a politically motivated investigation of Planned Parenthood on the basis of deceptive videos from a discredited anti-abortion organization. Although the panel was regarded by many as merely “an expensive witch hunt,” Blackburn touted her role during the campaign video, claiming that she had “fought Planned Parenthood” and “stopped the sale of baby body parts.”
Although Blackburn's campaign wanted to pay to promote the video on Twitter as an ad, the social media site initially objected, drawing widespread outrage among anti-abortion and right-wing outlets. According to an October 10 Associated Press report, Twitter found that Blackburn’s statement about “baby body parts” violated platform rules because it was “‘deemed an inflammatory statement that is likely to evoke a strong negative reaction.’” Twitter allowed the video to remain up but not as promoted content, concluding that the campaign “would be allowed to run the rest of the video” as a paid ad if it ommitted the phrase.
This stance did not last long, however. The next day, Twitter reversed its position and announced that it would allow Blackburn’s campaign to promote the ad, commenting to Politico, “While we initially determined that a small portion of the video used potentially inflammatory language, after reconsidering the ad in the context of the entire message, we believe that there is room to refine our policies around these issues.”
Blackburn's campaign quickly seized on Twitter’s refusal as an act of censorship -- taking a page straight from the anti-abortion media playbook.
As Media Matters has previously noted, anti-abortion extremists have increasingly employed the tactic of alleging “censorship” or claiming that inaccurate anti-choice content is being “shut down” to gin up fundraising support and rile up right-wing media allies. By reacting to perceived slights as instances of injustice or censorship, these groups can incite followers, increase fundraising, and appeal to an audience motivated by anti-elite sentiments but normally less attuned to the activities of the anti-abortion movement.
In one example, anti-abortion extremist Lila Rose alleged that Twitter was censoring advertisements from her group Live Action by similarly prohibiting their promotion as sponsored content. After Rose appeared on the June 26 edition of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight to discuss Twitter’s alleged bias, a banner was added to Live Action’s home page begging for donations to combat the act of censorship. By June 30, the organization had announced that it had reached its fundraising goal but nevertheless asked supporters to continue donating in order to “guarantee” Live Action could continue working “to expose the abortion industry.” Other anti-abortion organizations and right-wing outlets also came to Live Action’s defense, working to create even more support for claims of censorship and persecution.
Emulating this tactic, the Blackburn campaign was quick to cry foul and turn the perceived slight into a fundraising opportunity. On October 9, the campaign’s Twitter account circulated a video inaccurately alleging that Blackburn was “banned by Twitter” and asking supporters to share the clip in order to “spread the word” that “Silicon Valley won’t stop our conservative movement with censorship.” The account also shared posts from anti-abortion groups and outlets alleging that Blackburn had been censored. The Blackburn campaign even sent an email to supporters asking for donations, warning that the “liberal elite wants to censor us at every opportunity.” Over the next 24 hours, Blackburn appeared multiple times on Fox News to repeat her claims of censorship and enjoyed a surge in media attention from outlets across the political spectrum. Twitter ultimately caved to the pressure and allowed the campaign to run Blackburn’s ad with the allegations against Planned Parenthood intact.
The symbiotic relationship between Blackburn and various anti-abortion groups or media is hardly a secret. During Blackburn’s time as select panel chair, the committee held three hearings that utilized evidence sourced directly from anti-abortion groups as so-called “evidence” of wrongdoing by abortion providers and related organizations. Indeed, several anti-abortion groups, including (but likely not limited to) New Mexico Alliance for Life, Protest ABQ, Operation Rescue, and the Center for Medical Progress provided “documentation and materials” to the select panel. A member of Protest ABQ even bragged about having influence over the panel's investigators, stating that their research “finally paid off and turned into the panel investigating.” In addition to leveraging connections to anti-abortion groups, Blackburn also leaked an advanced copy of allegations from the panel to Fox News -- before sharing it with minority members -- and provided an exclusive interview inaccurately alleging that Planned Parenthood had operated in “direct violation of federal law.”
Blackburn’s deployment of the censorship tactic elides the more fundamental issue with the ad itself: the fact that it was based on a falsehood. Contrary to Blackburn's claim, multiple state investigations have cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing, while the anti-choice activists responsible for the initial “baby parts” allegations are currently the subject of multiple lawsuits.
Blackburn’s campaign took a page out of the anti-abortion playbook to garner a concession from Twitter. And as New York magazine's Margaret Hartmann noted, Blackburn’s success -- despite the falsity of her claims -- “has probably encouraged Republican midterm candidates to throw some unproven, inflammatory statements into the ads.” Indeed, Blackburn has already taken to calling Twitter's reversal “our first Senate conservative victory.”