CULTURE OF LIFE: Bias in Tech Against Pro-Life Movement?

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Pro-life organizations run into trouble buying advertising on social media, particularly Twitter, to get their message out.

By Nicholas Wolfram Smith,  National Catholic Register, 11/7/17

If you can’t beat ’em, ban ’em: Recent months have seen one pro-life organization banned from social-media advertising as other pro-life groups struggle to run advertisements.

While pro-life organizations have long experienced traditional media opposition, social-media companies have been generally tolerant of their presence, throwing up only an occasional content warning or banning of a meme. But Twitter has become an egregious offender against pro-life advertisers since at least March.

At the beginning of that month, Susan B. Anthony List promoted four tweets from the account of its president, Marjorie Dannenfelser. Within a few hours, any tweet that referred to abortion explicitly had been rejected from advertisement. In an email to SBA List, Twitter said the tweets violated an internal policy that “restricts the promotion of health and pharmaceutical products and services.”

An April SBA List Twitter advertisement encouraging viewers to tweet Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., to “#defundPP & end taxpayer funding of abortion,” fell afoul of the same policy. A June ad related to Georgia’s U.S. House special election and a September one for the Virginia attorney general’s race were prevented from running, as well.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, who is running for the U.S. Senate in her state, paid to promote a tweet boasting of her work in investigating Planned Parenthood’s sale of fetal body parts, only to be blocked by Twitter for a potentially “inflammatory” statement. After several days of criticism, including criticism from the chief operating officer of its social- media competitor, Facebook, Twitter allowed the advertisement to run.

Live Action has been completely banned from advertising on Twitter since 2015. In May, the organization was told to remove all objectionable “sensitive content” from Live Action’s own website as well as from its Twitter feed if it wanted to access the Twitter advertising network. Twitter’s demands included any ultrasounds of children, calls to defund Planned Parenthood, and content related to undercover investigations of Planned Parenthood.

At SBA List, Communications Director Mallory Quigley called the refusal to run pro-life advertisements “censorship.”

“Everyone understands that advertising is a tool to reach people outside their existing support base. To block people from advertising on these platforms is truly limiting speech,” she told the Register.

Being shut out from social media, Quigley explained, was more significant than a newspaper closing off its advertising section to a pro-life message. The value of social media lies not only in its ubiquity as a news source, but also in its range: An advertisement on social media can be highly targeted and reach further than it could through “organic” retweets and likes alone.

The educational potential of pro-life advertising, said Quigley, is significant in that SBA List is “able to educate people who probably don’t get the pro-life message in any other place.”

Quigley also criticized the social-media company for being “hypocritical” in allowing Planned Parenthood to run advertisements supporting abortion at the same time anti-abortion ads get suppressed.

Grandmas on Twitter

The pro-life movement on Twitter, and social media more generally, is in a curious place. While institutionally the pro-life message gets a hostile reception, or at best is tolerated, socially the pro-life message does extraordinarily well on Twitter. Bryan Kemper, youth director for Priests for Life and founder of Stand True Ministries, told the Register that “the platforms themselves have had a history of trying to censor pro-life messages,” citing the pro-life movement’s occasional run-ins with Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Despite all that, he said, the pro-life movement has “dominated Twitter.”

“The fact is, we’re better at it and do a better job at getting our message out,” Kemper said.

He attributes that to youth involvement in the pro-life movement and the galvanizing effect of finding a like-minded community in social media — as well as to an “amazing army of grandmas” who use Twitter to uphold the pro-life view of the person.

Often, though, Kemper said, “censorship usually helps” to spread a message further. In a phenomenon that some internet watchers have called the “Streisand Effect” — a term coined after the entertainer’s 2003 attempt to suppress photos of her house backfired and brought even greater attention — the warnings that YouTube and Facebook sometimes put ahead of pro-life material only pique curiosity further.

While Quigley praised the pro-life movement’s ability to successfully use the platform, she said that the freedom users found did not balance out the censorship in advertising.

“Our ability to pull together as a movement to make hashtags trend and to get activists all tweeting about the same thing is different from the ability of groups like SBA List to put money behind promoted campaigns for a specific purpose of influencing an election, for example.”

Pro-Life Prayer App Banned

Social media is not the only area where pro-life groups have run into trouble on the internet. Human Coalition released an app in 2013 that allowed people to pray for anonymous women considering abortion. For nearly four years after that, the app continued to be listed in the Google Play store and Apple’s App Store. Appearances in the press, both good and bad, raised the national profile of the organization, and in July 2017, Apple took down Human Coalition’s app, refusing to provide clear reasons for the removal.

Lauren Enriquez, public relations manager for Human Coalition, told the Register that Apple left them with the impression that they would have to rebuild and resubmit the app, a significant expense the organization felt they “could not justify,” especially given the lack of guarantee it would be accepted.

While Enriquez stressed Human Coalition could not say with “certainty” they had been discriminated against, given the presence of other pro-life apps on Apple’s store, she did affirm that there was a troubling pattern of pro-life groups being singled out by technology companies.

Mainstream America and the pro-life movement are at odds with the ideology of many in the tech world, she said, and there could be “a lot more integration” between those two worlds.

Ultimately, she hopes “that pro-lifers going forward have the freedom to state what they believe, because that seems to be threatened at the moment.”

Into the Future

Kristin Hawkins, president of Students for Life, criticized the hypocrisy of liberals cheering bakers and florists being forced to contribute to events they find morally repugnant, but then shutting down pro-life discourse. Her advice, though, was for pro-lifers to continue to speak up and make their voices heard. In the end, social-media companies are businesses, she said, and while some of the management will put ideology over money, “the shareholders won’t.”

Kemper said that tech companies would “back off” from censorship.

“I think that hard line is going to backfire on them,” he said. “The everyday person I talk to still believes in free speech.”

These social-media platforms will continue to be an important battleground for the pro-life movement.

Quigley said, “This is where more and more people are getting their news. This is the new way that people across the world use to communicate to each other.

“This is the future.”

Register correspondent Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from Oakland, California.