NASHVILLE (BP) — Twitter’s day-long suspension of a campaign ad by U.S. Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn over its pro-life content has left social media users discussing the microblogging site’s free speech policies.
Among evangelicals, some claimed calculated censorship of Blackburn’s anti-abortion views while others wondered whether the move was merely an unintended consequence of ill-defined Twitter policies.
“The million-dollar question” is whether Twitter’s initial removal of the video was “an honest mistake,” said Daniel Ausbun, a Kentucky pastor whose YouTube account was temporarily deleted in 2014, apparently over a sermon he preached at a previous church about Christian persecution in the Middle East. The account was reinstated after Fox News published his story.
Ausbun, now pastor of Broadway Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky., told Baptist Press, “I do think there is religious censorship” by online platforms “if you say the wrong things, like with [Blackburn]. She got the boot for her pro-life position.”
Blackburn, in announcing her candidacy for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Bob Corker, released a two-and-a-half-minute video in which she stated, “I am 100 percent pro-life. I fought Planned Parenthood, and we stopped the sale of baby parts. Thank God.”
Her comments presumably referenced her leadership of a U.S. House of Representatives panel that investigated the Planned Parenthood Federation of America for allegedly selling body parts from aborted babies. Planned Parenthood denies any wrongdoing but announced in 2015 it would no longer accept reimbursement for providing fetal tissue to medical researchers.
On Oct. 9, Twitter suspended advertisements purchased by Blackburn’s Senate campaign that included the video. Twitter told campaign officials the line about baby parts “had been deemed an inflammatory statement that is likely to evoke a strong negative reaction,” according to media reports.
Though the ad was taken down, Twitter users remained free to share the video via their accounts.
Numerous media outlets reported Twitter’s decision, and Blackburn, a Republican, claimed in a fundraising email that “Silicon Valley is trying to censor us … the liberal elite are relentless in their attempts to silence our movement.”
Twitter reversed its decision Oct. 10 and reinstated the ad.
Nicholas Pacilio, a Twitter spokesman, said in a statement, “Our ads policies strive to balance protecting our users from potentially distressing content while allowing advertisers to communicate their messages. Nowhere is this more difficult than in the realm of political advertising and the highly charged issues that are often addressed therein.
“After further review, we have made the decision to allow the content in question from Rep. Blackburn’s campaign ad to be promoted on our ads platform. 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,” Pacilio said.
Darrel Girardier, who oversees social media for one of the largest churches in the congressional district Blackburn has represented since 2003, said Twitter does not seem to have company-wide bias against conservatives. He speculated the campaign ad suspension could have stemmed from the difficulty of applying “vague” company policies.
“Twitter probably has the most vague policies of all social media platforms in the sense that what people can and cannot post” is relatively undefined, Girardier, creative director at Brentwood (Tenn.) Baptist Church, told BP. “I live and work on the platform, and I can’t tell you specifically what you can and can’t do.”
The “lack of clarity” in Twitter regulations, Girardier said, forces individual employees to “make the call” to remove content “based on their preference versus having clear guidelines.”
Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore told BP “Twitter should not silence dissenting voices, if it wishes to be a platform for debate and free exchange of ideas.
“Planned Parenthood has been a force establishing a culture of death for a century, and recent years have exposed the organization even further as a trafficker of human bodies for financial gain,” Moore said in written comments.
To be censured for noting “that fact is a sobering reminder of just how deeply the abortion lobby is entrenched in our cultural conscience. It shows us how far we have to go in the cause of life and human dignity and how urgent that work still is for the entire body of Christ,” Moore said.
In 2015, Facebook temporarily blocked users from posting a commentary by Moore on Planned Parenthood’s alleged sale of organs from aborted babies. Facebook displayed a message to users stating the post “include[d] content that other people on Facebook have reported as abusive.” After several hours, Facebook “admitted the error,” the ERLC told BP at the time.
Ausbun, the pastor whose YouTube account was suspended, urged Christians to be vigilant in reporting online censorship. After his story became public, many fellow pastors shared their own allegations of being censored unjustly by online platforms, he said.
Blackburn “and I are part of a bigger story,” Ausbun said.