On Wednesday, Carlos Monje, Jr., Twitter’s director of Public Policy and Philanthropy, and Neil Potts, Facebook policy director, testified before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee. The content of the hearing pertained to the potential monopolization and censorship of speech by large tech companies, which might trigger anti-trust concerns.
During the hearing, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) asked Monje and Potts about how the companies deal with pro-life content, noting: “I think we all know it isn’t the case that there’s sort of an equal number of accidental anecdotes that are on the abortion rights side of the debate and on the pro-life side of the debate.”
Sasse also asked the men to define “hate speech” in light of several incidents, including when Twitter allegedly censored Senator Marsha Blackburn’s (R-TN) anti-abortion campaign ad in which she spoke about fighting Planned Parenthood, and ending “the sale of baby body parts.”
For context, according to the Washington Examiner, a Twitter employee allegedly told Blackburn’s team that they needed to remove the portion of the commercial discussing the sale of fetal body parts. They also allegedly claimed that it was “an inflammatory statement that is likely to evoke a strong negative reaction.”
SASSE: Can you define hate speech?
POTTS: Senator, thank you, I’ll take a stab at it. Both giving you the definition from a Facebook position, but … we’re also recognizing there’s not a universal definition of hate speech across the globe. So, to Facebook, the way we define hate speech is an attack against a person or a group of people based on their protected characteristic like race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, as well as serious disability. We define attack to mean something like using words that are dehumanizing, calls for violence, contempt or disgust, exclusion or segregation.
But I think your point is the accurate one, is how do you draw those lines to allow a free flow of ideas, to allow debate, but also for us to keep the community safe. So, we on my team, and the teams that we work with, we really fight through that, that struggle of balancing voice versus safety. So, we want to give voice to more people. We err on the side of giving voice. There is a lot of content that I find, perhaps, offensive – and maybe some of you all would find offensive as well – that we allow on the platform because it doesn’t violate our policies. But, when we draw the line, and we say that that this type of speech is going to lead to violence, it is dehumanizing, we do remove it under our policies…
SASSE: I don’t mean to be rude. I don’t want to interrupt you, if we had a lot more time here, but I just want to ask a precise point here because I’m well over time right now. A lot of the context of this debate is around the pro-life movement and when you bring up violence, I mean, there’s violence in abortion. It’s in the abortion. Can you explain to me how the pro-life position is in any way violent, and how any community standards could ever say a pro-life person’s speech should be shut down because somehow … I don’t follow from this.
I could understand how you could say that a whole bunch of positions advocating the most extreme abortion laws that exist on earth – the U.S., China, North Korea, and Vietnam are the only nations that allow abortion until moments before delivery. Out of 200 countries, there are four on earth that do that. We’re one of those four. There’s clearly violence associated with that conversation. It’s on the abortion advocates’ side of the debate. How is the pro-life side ever guilty of something that equates to violence? Like, how could a pro-life position ever be shut down because of safety?
POTTS: That’s a great question, Senator. And, to be clear, a lot of this depends on intent, and the context of statements or images or videos [that] are shared, so it’s hard to do the hypothetical. But a general pro-life position would not be violating our community standards for hate speech.
As Sen. Sasse noted, the anecdotal evidence of censorship seems always to run in the same direction.
In 2018, Facebook pulled multiple political ads from pro-life group Susan B. Anthony List.
In an email from the tech giant, SBA was told that the reason that their “Charlotte” video was brought down was because the site doesn’t “allow ads that depict medical procedures or conditions (ex: surgeries, open wounds, injections),” nor does it “allow ads that feature sensational or graphic content.”
The “sensational” and “graphic” images shown in the commercial were an ultrasound of a baby, and a photograph of a premature infant who survived despite being born at just 23 weeks.
Facebook also pulled two ads that criticized Democratic opponents of Republican Senate candidates Marsha Blackburn and Matt Rosendale.
Fox News reports that the company later apologized, stating:
Neither of these ads violate Facebook’s policies and they should never have been rejected. We’re sorry for this mistake – the ads have been restored and are now running on Facebook.
Regarding the pro-life/tech company censorship debate, Sen.Sasse provided a statement to The Daily Wire:
Living in a free speech society can be messy and complicated, but it’s what makes principled pluralism great. These tech companies are privately owned and so they’re not held to the same “make no law” standard as Congress, but it would be good to see everyone bring some humility and tolerance to the table. The idea that pro-life speech is ever hate speech is just laughably ridiculous.
As social media platforms continue to dominate the national conversation surrounding political issues, it is imperative that they be held accountable for any alleged acts of censorship.