Blackburn capitalizes on Twitter video controversy

Twitter inadvertently handed Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnElection Countdown: Takeaways from too-close-to-call Ohio special election | Trump endorsements cement power but come with risks | GOP leader's race now rated as 'toss-up' | Record numbers of women nominated | Latino candidates get prominent role in 2020 Top Koch official fires back at critics: We are not an 'appendage' of the GOP The Hill's Morning Report: Trump tries to rescue Ohio House seat as GOP midterm fears grow MORE (R-Tenn.) a valuable talking point for her Senate campaign on Monday, when it prevented her campaign from advertising a video on the site.

After Twitter prevented Blackburn’s campaign from promoting a video in which she claimed Planned Parenthood sold “baby body parts,” the Tennessee lawmaker accused “Silicon Valley elites” of “trying to impose their values on us.”

On Tuesday, the company confirmed to The Hill that it had decided to reverse its decision amid the uproar.

"Our ads policies strive to balance protecting our users from potentially distressing content while allowing our advertisers to communicate their messages. Nowhere is this more difficult than in the realm of political advertising and the highly charged issues that are often addressed therein. After further review, we have made the decision to allow the content in question from Rep. Blackburn’s campaign ad to be promoted on our ads platform," the company said in a statement.

The new fight between Twitter and Blackburn is the latest example for Republicans convinced that tech giants treat them unfairly. Many on the right say that the companies, which are often led by outspoken liberals, are marginalizing their voices.

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“I’m being censored for telling the truth,” Blackburn wrote in a fundraising email to supporters sent shortly after Twitter took the video down. “When I talked about our legislative accomplishments to stop the sale of baby body parts, they responded by calling our ad ‘inflammatory’ and ‘negative.’ ”

Twitter didn’t take down Blackburn’s video, which is still available to view on the site. But Twitter no longer allows Blackburn’s campaign to pay to promote the video into users’ timelines.

In an explanation provided to Blackburn’s campaign, Twitter says it considered the “baby body parts” line “an inflammatory statement that is likely to evoke a strong negative reaction.”

The company insists that blocking Blackburn’s ad from promoted tweets wasn’t politically motivated, adding promoted tweets must meet higher standards than normal tweets on the platform. A Twitter spokesperson told The Hill that content promoted by Planned Parenthood has also been taken down in the past.

But strategists say that Blackburn has used the video’s removal to tap into a growing distrust between Silicon Valley and voters in other parts of the country, especially conservatives.

“It shows the huge divide between what people in Tennessee think and what elites think,” said one Republican strategist. “It shows a very acute sense of what people in Tennessee are thinking about in these broader fights between Silicon Valley elites, in terms of cultural fights.”

Blackburn has turned Twitter’s decision to block the ad from promoted tweets into a content opportunity. She used the ad takedown as a rallying call to solicit donations from her supporters and amplify the original video’s reach by asking them to tweet out her message.

“It is smart for the Blackburn team to raise the profile of this issue,” the Republican strategist said. “It speaks to something that people in her state are thinking about. It confirms their suspicions about West Coast politics and culture.”

Alan Rosenblatt, a digital political strategist at the Democratic-aligned Lake Research Partners, says that Blackburn is playing smart politics by attacking Twitter.

“I think when it comes to fundraising, any time either side gets shut down by the media, that could be seen as unfair by their base, [and] it becomes a great fundraising opportunity,” he said. “That’s always the way it is.”

Twitter has previously stopped Republicans from voicing controversial messages. During the 2016 elections, Twitter made a last-minute decision in November to not allow the Trump campaign to buy a promoted #CrookedHillary hashtag that included an emoji of a stick figure running away with money. 

Twitter’s advertising policy bans inflammatory content, though it doesn’t specify exactly what that means. The lack of transparency about moderation decisions, which can seem arbitrary, fuels conservative anxiety about Twitter’s impartiality.

“I think that transparency is important for any organization but especially a gigantic media organization that relies on a community of participants,” the GOP strategist said. “I think that in this game of public relations, there’s a saying that ‘If you’re explaining, you’re losing’ and ‘If you can’t even explain, you’ve already lost.’

“In this battle, Twitter is somewhere near zero and Blackburn is at 100.”

Other technology companies have also garnered criticism from the right. YouTube was attacked by right-wing online pundits after ads were removed from their videos, hitting the income they made from the site. Facebook has also been hammered for alleged bias against conservatives.

Silicon Valley has become acutely aware of the impression that it’s politically biased, taking steps to show that political considerations don’t play into how information is displayed on the sites.

“Trump says Facebook is against him. Liberals say we helped Trump,” Zuckerberg said in a recent Facebook post. “Both sides are upset about ideas and content they don’t like. That’s what running a platform for all ideas looks like.”

A Blackburn campaign spokesperson confirmed to The Hill that they are also running the video in question as a sponsored post on Facebook. So far, Facebook administrators haven’t stopped the video from being promoted.