Are religious and culturally conservative groups silenced on the Internet?

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Not all religious believers are conservatives.

I get that. But many are and not a few in this group have seen their posts frozen out of Facebook and other social media simply because some moderator thinks they’re spreading hate speech (which is usually posts defending centuries of Christian doctrine).

Big Tech has gotten reamed on this by members of Congress (which they seem to ignore) on the grounds of crushing political dissent. But what about religious views?

The National Catholic Register recently posted this thoughtful story about how the silencing of religious views (and the morality that emanates from them) affects Catholics who number some 51 million U.S. citizens or one-fifth of the population. This is not a small group. Here’s how the feature begins:

Lila Rose is no stranger to the tactics social-media giants Facebook and Twitter employed in banning former President Donald Trump from their platforms.

As head of the pro-life group Live Action, Rose has seen the organization she founded permanently banned from Pinterest, barred from advertising on Twitter and its entire TikTok account temporarily removed for unnamed “community violations.”

Rose gained some fame for her sneaking into abortion clinics as a teenager, posing as a girl seeking an abortion while recording everything with a video camera in her backpack to later accuse Planned Parenthood of looking the other way on statutory rape. She’s pictured with this post.

In remaining engaged on social media, where she and Live Action have a combined total of 5 million followers, Rose said she sticks to her message and tries to follow each platform’s guidelines. When an issue arises, she attempts to determine whether it was the result of a misunderstanding or mistake before pursuing a challenge.

“If you don’t have a clear case, saying you do when you don’t is not helpful,” she said. “I would caution people that just because your post is not getting a lot of shares or likes or you lost followers doesn’t mean it’s a nefarious scheme to destroy you. It’s important to have a lot of common sense and be thoughtful and discerning about whether this is truly the case.”

Still, for Catholics and others with conservative views, examples of Big Tech’s heavy hand abound, providing plenty of reasons to be concerned about access to social media. Increasingly, these platforms are targeting anyone attempting to post information that does not fit the mainstream narrative about COVID-19, gender and other issues.

The story goes on to document how the National Abortion Rights Action League took part in banning Live Action from Facebook; how a Catholic podcast host was removed from YouTube after posting his disagreements with the government’s Covid policy; how YouTube banned a video on socialism put out by the Diocese of Toledo (it was later restored after the diocese cried foul) and more. Another example:

Bill Donohue of the Catholic League agreed. When Catholic World Report’s Twitter account was frozen over a tweet that referred to Biden’s nominee Dr. Rachel Levine as a biological man identifying as a transgender woman, the Catholic League mobilized its base, and within three hours the account was unlocked.

Donohue told the Register that the Catholic League is able to activate thousands of Catholics through its email list and provide them with the necessary contact information.

“We always hit hard and not below the belt, and we make sure we have the right target,” Donohue said. “Unless we push back, these elites are not going to stop. We have to stay in the fight. You either fight or you quit.”

I first encountered this phenomenon when researching my fall of 2020 Politico piece on Christian rocker Sean Feucht, who held “Let Us Worship” concerts around the U.S. last summer and fall in response to government COVID-19 policies forbidding people to gather in churches. I said:

When he broadcast his Minneapolis and St. Louis appearances on social media, Feucht said Instagram then blocked his posts for violating community guidelines. (Missouri Sen. Josh) Hawley tweeted about it on June 23: “Cancel culture meets #BigTech. Now @Instagram is censoring a Christian worship leader who wants to post videos of praise and worship from places where there has recently been unrest. And that doesn’t meet ‘community standards’? Can’t wait to hear an explanation for this.” (A spokeswoman for Instagram said no content was removed from Feucht’s account, and that it was another user whose posts were blocked.)

Now, I had to include that quote from Instagram but c’mon, it was Feucht’s posts that were affected, not “another user.”

This is not a little-known phenomenon. This 2019 editorial in the Des Moines Register recounts numerous social media bans of conservatives, including then-White House social media manager Dan Scavino. But this was an opinion piece, not hard news.

Going back to 2018, the Christian Post listed seven examples of censorship. Its examples either dealt with religious groups or sites that oppose abortion, including one 2017 incident where Facebook blocked nearly two dozen Roman Catholic pages. After protests, Facebook reinstated them, claiming it had been an accident.

OK, so how are mainstream media dealing with this?

A lot say that social media moderators are merely canceling disinformation, not ideas. This Associated Press story talks about multiple bills introduced by Republicans in state legislatures giving people the right to sue “big tech” if their political or religious posts are spiked. Whether or not Facebook and Twitter were right to ban President Donald Trump from their platforms, that action enraged conservatives.

However, most media aren’t taking the problem very seriously. This Washington Post piece (along with many other reports that came out at the same time) cites a report issued in February that chastises conservatives for spreading “disinformation” about being silenced.

New York University researchers today released a report stating claims of anti-conservative bias are “a form of disinformation: a falsehood with no reliable evidence to support it.”

The report found there is no trustworthy large-scale data to support these claims, and even anecdotal examples that tech companies are biased against conservatives “crumble under close examination.” The report’s authors said, for instance, the companies’ suspensions of Trump were “reasonable” given his repeated violation of their terms of service — and if anything, the companies took a hands-off approach for a long time given Trump’s position…

Working with the nonpartisan think tank Institute for Strategic Dialogue, researchers found users shared the most viral right-wing social media content about Black Lives Matter more than ten times as often as the most popular liberal posts on the topic. People also shared right-leaning claims on election fraud about twice as often as they shared liberals’ or traditional media outlets’ posts discussing the issue.

Here’s also a Politico story, that ran last October, that says much the same thing. However, in 2018, the Media Research Center came out with a 50-page study showing how social media platforms are canceling conservatives big time. Why didn’t this get any coverage (except on Fox TV)? I don’t buy that New York University is the objective middleman in all this. Academia skews very left and I think it’d be a cold day in you-know-where before any university would come out with a report saying conservatives are right on this.

So you’ve got two narratives here. But I noticed how both sides talking about political content. Even the Josh Hawley video that comes with this post doesn’t refer to religion and only says the word “pro life” in the last minute of a nine-minute speech.

But our interest is in religious content and culture wars posts, which no one seems to track in terms of whether they are snuffed out or not. Along with abortion, we’re talking about LGBTQ rights (especially trans issues) and peoples’ doubts about COVID vaccinations as some of the causes that get people riled up.

Little research seems to have been done on whether posts on these topics get banned.

This October 2020 BBC piece explains the debate pretty well, but doesn’t refer to religion.

It did mention this August 2020 Pew survey that showed an amazing 90% of Republicans polled (vs 59% of the Democrats) believe social media target objectionable political viewpoints. That’s a lot of disenchanted people, folks.

The Pew survey also didn’t deal with religious viewpoints, but religious people often take conservative political and cultural viewpoints on topics such abortion and sexuality. And so you have an abortion opponent like Rose getting her account suspended.

Some religious ideas get banned because they’re unfairly tied to hate speech, said this religious rights group in 2019. It added:

The rush to censor hate speech leads private companies to censor unpopular political ideas, especially conservative ideas. Conservative Prager University sued YouTube twice because the site had a pattern of repeatedly restricting its videos. Funding sites like Patreon have faced criticism for removing controversial voices. Twitter and Facebook have repeatedly restricted pro-life content. The Apple App Store removed a religious pro-life app that encouraged users to pray for the unborn. Amazon Smile won’t let users donate to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious freedom organization with multiple U.S. Supreme Court victories under its belt.

So what’s really going on out there? I see this as a good religion story that will take lots of work to research, but would have a lot to say to add to the debate. An academic study wouldn’t hurt, either.

I don’t have the answers, but there are so many stories and anecdotes out there about this trend, someone should take them seriously, don’t you agree?

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