Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren have both made headlines this past week, accusing social media companies of aiding and comforting the enemy. The President claims that Twitter censors right-wing voices; meanwhile, the Massachusetts senator says that Facebook didn’t do enough to curtail “fake news” during the 2016 election. Regardless of whether Big Tech is hostile to conservatives or progressives, however, it seems clear that the pro-life movement has few friends in Silicon Valley.
Cary Solomon, the producer and co-writer of the anti-abortion film Unplanned, was among those invited to participate in last week’s White House summit on social media. “We are the tip of the spear as far as social media persecution goes,” she told the Catholic News Agency. She said that her project was “directly, monetarily hurt” by Big Tech’s alleged suppression of pro-life content.
Lila Rose, the founder of Live Action, was also in attendance. For years Twitter has forbidden her group from buying ad space on its platform. Twitter specifically cited as offensive Live Action’s calls for the US government to defund Planned Parenthood (which is still allowed to advertise on Twitter). Ms Rose also claims that YouTube “buried our pro-life videos and boosted abortion videos”. Last month, Live Action was permanently suspended from Pinterest. Meanwhile, posts teaching women how to perform DIY abortions remain on the site.
This isn’t a recent development, either. In 2014, reports emerged that Google had decided to block ads from crisis pregnancy centres at the behest of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). The pro-choice giant was outraged that these pregnancy centres were allowed to bid for space when users searched for the keyword “abortion clinics”. Google conceded, ensuring that women would never learn of a non-fatal alternative to abortion.
Another disturbing example occurred during last year’s abortion referendum in Ireland. As readers will recall, a brutal political battle was waged over whether to repeal the Irish constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which prohibited abortion. Those who favoured repeal won by a two-to-one margin. But the anti-repeal (or pro-life) campaign immediately cried foul. They had used a principally digital strategy, while pro-repeal activists focused on broadcast and print media. That’s why, when Google summarily banned certain referendum advertisements, Irish pro-lifers felt they were hit hardest.
Facebook, meanwhile, banned foreign ads, claiming it wanted to protect the referendum from outside interference. And the London Times reported that Twitter may have “shadow-banned” anti-repeal users, meaning their tweets did not appear during searches for hashtags relating to the referendum.
Big Tech is also careful to control the discussion of same-sex attraction. In the early 2010s, Facebook teamed up with gay rights’ groups to prevent “anti-homosexual” content from being shared on its site. Then in May, Amazon removed books by the late Dr Joseph Nicolosi, the late Catholic psychologist who – his critics claimed – promoted “conversion therapy”, a practice which has been widely banned in the United States. Its rehabilitation isn’t exactly a popular cause even among traditional Catholics.
Yet Nicolosi’s son said that his father had been smeared: “my father never advocated so-called conversion therapy,” he wrote. “Conversion therapy is broad, ill-defined, has no ethics code, no governing body, and is typically practiced by unlicensed individuals. My father had nothing to do with these or any similar practices, and as a therapist myself, I wholeheartedly condemn such a concept.”
What Nicolosi did, his son argued, was “to help men overcome traumas that they – and he – believed were leading them into a life that did not reflect the men they were truly designed by their creator to be.” Nevertheless, more than 80,000 people signed a petition earlier this year demanding that Nicolosi’s books be removed from Amazon’s warehouses. Amazon complied, of course.
Sometimes, however, Big Tech blocks Christian content by accident. In April last year, a Facebook advertisement for the Franciscan University of Steubenville was flagged for being “shocking and excessively violent” because it depicted… a crucifix. Facebook quickly apologised for the error, however, and allowed the ad to run. “It may have been the algorithm or a low-level staffer who has something against Christianity,” a university spokesman told Fox News. “For whatever reason, Facebook rejected the cross.”
It’s worth pointing out that the ad featured the San Damiano Cross – by no means among the gorier depictions of Our Lord’s death. And this is the trouble with internet censorship. Even when they apologise, Big Tech companies aren’t obliged to explain their actions or even to ensure that such mistakes aren’t repeated. There’s no legal accountability for such actions.
What will the next step be? Some activists now insist that the web is now effectively an extension of the public square, and so free speech rights must be guaranteed on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Others call for a boycott.
In any event, Americans are realising the dangers of allowing a handful of corporations to exercise such a disproportionate influence over the narrative.