On Monday, Twitter told Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who is currently running for the Senate, that her campaign would not be allowed to promote a Tweet that hailed her anti-abortion stance with the language "we stopped the sale of baby body parts."
Twitter's move comes as Washington is scrutinizing how it and other Silicon Valley giants, like Facebook and Google, handle political content on their platforms. Twitter is already struggling to convince Congress it's taking the issue seriously, and it may have just dug itself a deeper hole.
In an email to the Blackburn campaign obtained by BuzzFeed News, Twitter made it clear the ad could run if some of its anti-abortion language was removed. "The line in this video specific to 'stopped the sale of baby body parts' has been deemed an inflammatory statement that is likely to evoke a strong negative reaction," the email said. "If this is omitted from the video it will be permitted to serve."
Twitter did not suspend Blackburn's account, nor did it remove her tweet. Some are already criticizing the move, saying that Twitter is making itself an arbiter of what's allowed and what is not in the political conversation.
Twitter seems to be been subject to criticism whenever it makes a decision on political content. The company has been wary of suspending political accounts, such as President Trump's, even when they toy with its terms of service.
In her tweet, Blackburn is likely referring to congressional inquiries into Planned Parenthood after the organization was accused of profiting from the sale of fetal tissue — a charge Planned Parenthood has consistently denied. Blackburn led one of those investigations, which eventually recommended that state attorneys general, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Health and Human Services seek to charge and defund the organization. However, only Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s took up the inquiry, and Congress has yet to pull the organization’s funding.
The phrase “baby body parts” was coined by anti-abortion activist David Daleiden in a series of secretly filmed and heavily edited videos of Planned Parenthood and National Abortion Fund employees. The videos sparked dozens of state and federal investigations into Planned Parenthood, though they resulted in no charges against the health organization. The videos did, however, lead to Daleiden facing multiple charges of fraud for creating a fake company and IDs, and for illegally filming people without their consent. He has criminal and civil cases pending in numerous states.
Twitter's decision on Blackburn's ad may add to the building tension between the social media company and Washington. Both the Senate and House Intelligence Committees are currently scrutinizing Twitter as part of their investigation into Russia's use of social platforms to manipulate the 2016 US presidential election.
So far, the details Twitter's provided on Russian manipulation of its platform have drawn strong rebuke from Senate Intelligence Committee's vice chairman Sen. Mark Warner, who said a recent Twitter presentation to the committee was "deeply disappointing" and "inadequate on almost every level."
Like Twitter, TV networks at times reject ads that do not meet their standards. And some marketers create ads they think will be rejected in order to benefit from the free publicity that comes along with creating an ad that's too hot for TV.
Blackburn wasted little time capitalizing on the moment. Her campaign quickly posted new Tweets, telling supporters "Silicon Valley won't stop our conservative movement with censorship" and "Join me in standing up to Silicon Valley → RETWEET our message!"
So far, Twitter users have retweeted the banned ad more than 4,000 times.
Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. He reports on social and communications.
Contact Alex Kantrowitz at email@example.com.
Ema O'Connor is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Ema O'Connor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.