Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) launched her reelection bid with a campaign ad. (Photo by Eric Hanson for The Washington Post)
Rep. Marsha Blackburn launched her Senate reelection bid — as so many people do — with a video explaining what she believes in. But she can’t use it as a campaign ad on Twitter.
Twitter told the campaign Monday that it couldn’t pay to promote the video as an advertisement, in which the Tennessee Republican claims that she stopped “the sale of baby body parts” — a reference to her opposition to fetal tissue research. Twitter told the Blackburn campaign that the ad was “deemed an inflammatory statement that is likely to evoke a strong negative reaction,” campaign spokeswoman Andrea Bozek told The Washington Post. This is the same justification the company has used to block antiabortion ads before.
Blocking the video from becoming an advertisement limits its reach. But it doesn’t stop anyone from viewing it. Blackburn’s video is still up and running. So, while it may be objectionable as fodder for advertisement, it’s clearly not seen to be objectionable enough to take down from Twitter altogether. It can be shared by retweet, and since Blackburn’s campaign went public with its situation, the video has actually been retweeted more than 15,000 times.
Which gets to the crux of the matter: Twitter and other social media platforms have made plenty of rules about what it is and isn’t acceptable on their sites. But those rules govern a messy swamp of expression and, even to an informed observer, are about as clear as mud.
The Blackburn campaign saw Twitter’s decision as politically motivated censorship. In a campaign email, Blackburn said the block on her advertisement illustrated how “Silicon Valley elites” are imposing their values on the general public. “Silicon Valley is in the pocket of the liberal establishment, but our conservative revolution is going to keep on winning,” Blackburn said in the email.
Twitter said in a statement that it has different guidelines for what is acceptable in its promoted ads and what it deems appropriate for more general tweets. That’s because advertising gives accounts a much broader reach. If someone wants to seek out Blackburn’s opinions, they can follow her or navigate to her feed. An ad, however, reaches people who have not actively sought out Blackburn’s opinions by following her Twitter account, and therefore the company holds it to a different standard.
But even clear lines — i.e., different sets of policies for advertisements and all other content — get blurry when looking at free expression in the digital age. And that’s how we end up with a video that’s deemed acceptable for sharing but not for advertising.
Meanwhile, Twitter and other platforms continually find themselves in uncomfortable situations in which they look inconsistent even when abiding by clear rules and ruffling feathers across the board.
In this case, the Blackburn campaign has used the incident to burnish its conservative credentials. In a new tweet, the campaign created a GIF that shows the Blackburn campaign’s Twitter timeline with a big “BANNED” stamped on it.
You can see it — where else? — on the campaign’s Twitter account.