WATCH: Twitter Exec Spars with Senate Committee Over Unplanned Social Media Blackout
Senators grilled a senior executive at Twitter about charges of bias against conservatives. Unplanned co-director Chuck Konzelman also testified of hurdles the new film has faced.
In a U.S. Senate subcommittee Wednesday, filmmakers behind the Abby Johnson biopic Unplanned presented “evidence of one-sided discrimination” on Twitter and Google.
“The subject of abortion has been targeted on these platforms,” Unplanned director Chuck Konzelman told The Stream. “If you mention it from the conservative side, you’re done.”
Currently in theaters, Unplanned portrays the story of an abortion clinic director who abruptly resigned after eight years working for Planned Parenthood. One day after its theatrical release, the movie’s Twitter account was inexplicably suspended for approximately an hour.
Within days, Senator Ted Cruz, R.-Tex, called a hearing on the apparent incident of censorship. The Subcommittee on the Constitution hearing on “Stifling Free Speech” featured eight witnesses including Konzelman.
Committee members grilled executives from social media platforms Twitter and Facebook. They questioned the Unplanned Twitter blackout as well as suppression of pro-life content from Susan B. Anthony List.
“At Twitter, [we] embrace being a platform where the open and free exchange of ideas can occur,” said Carlos Monje, Jr., public policy director for Twitter. “The notion that we would silence any political perspective is antithetical to our commitment to free expression.”
Some media outlets mocked the hearing, alleging it was based on “isolated cases” and a “conspiracy theory.” Konzelman told The Stream that the Senate has cause to examine whether these platforms silence diverse voices.
“If the death of the two-party system and the two points of view in our country is not objectionable, then, yeah, we’re wasting our time,” said the Unplanned co-director. “But if the conservative viewpoint is reasonable, then its defense is a good idea.”
An Unplanned Twitter Suspension
The Twitter suspension was potentially damaging because it came “during our all-important first weekend of release,” said Konzelman. He explained in terms relevant to elected officials.
“Opening weekend results determine the course of a film’s theatrical run,” he said.
“Much like the advertising spend in a political campaign, the vast majority of the dollars spent in promoting a film are spent to help build up a white-hot-intensity and awareness around one particular date. But instead of election day? For films, it’s the Friday night of opening weekend.”
Twitter exec Monje offered their version of what occurred. “While we continue to improve [our] content moderation practices, mistakes do occur,” he said in his statement. “When we become aware of mistakes, we act promptly to correct them.”
“In the recent instance regarding the account @UnplannedMovie, the account was caught in our automated systems used to detect ban evasion,” said Monje.
“Ban evasion occurs when an individual registers for a new account despite having been suspended previously for breaking our rules. We reinstated the @UnplannedMovie account as soon as [the mistake] was brought to our attention.”
With Unplanned co-director Cary Solomon seated behind him, Konzelman later responded. He altered his written statement after Twitter’s explanation.
“The reason for the suspension has not — to the best of my knowledge — been made clear, beyond being ‘accidental’ or a ‘mistake,’” he said. “When such ‘accidents’ occur within twelve hours of the film’s theatrical debut, [the] ‘glitch’ is of course suspect.”
Producers of Unplanned have also noted the incident has helped raise awareness of the film.
Unequal Treatment for Certain Viewpoints
Cruz questioned Twitter’s Monje about a graphic posted by the president of Susan B. Anthony List. The nonprofit group backs pro-life candidates and legislation.
The graphic, featuring a quote from Mother Teresa, was blocked from being a promoted tweet. “It is fairly remarkable that Mother Teresa is now deemed hate speech,” said Cruz.
Cruz: "Is this hate speech?"
Twitter and Facebook representatives at a loss for words. pic.twitter.com/4bCSbVENQd
— Alison H.Centofante (@AlisonHowardC) April 10, 2019
“Every tweet and every decision made [has] context behind it,” replied Monje. “The Susan B. Anthony List is currently an advertiser in good standing on our platform. I can tell you we have actioned accounts on both sides of this debate, including tweets by pro-choice groups.”
Even after hours of testimony from Twitter and Facebook, Konzelman remained convinced that conservative content faces unequal treatment.
“The application of their policies has not been even,” said Konzelman. “My guess is, pro-choice content has to be very extreme before it’s banned. Whereas we just saw here how Mother Teresa was banned.”
“How much clearer do you need to be that a mainstream pro-life stance is being found objectionable?”
Social Media Algorithms and Unconscious Bias
Google, Facebook and Twitter have faced mounting charges of bias as their reach has grown. Facebook public policy director Neil Potts said its platform alone has one billion new posts daily. Globally, two billion people use Facebook every month.
Founded in 1944 to combat censorship on radio airwaves, National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) now raises concerns of similar issues online. Their project Internet Freedom Watch chronicles dozens of incidents of viewpoint discrimination.
“The locus for power in media is no longer New York — it’s Silicon Valley,” said Senator Cruz at a December 2017 NRB event. “Silicon Valley has the ability to put their thumb on the scale in a far more subtle and insidious way. Views that are unfavored simply disappear. Views they like magically bubble to the top.”
Social media executives, both from companies based near San Francisco, admitted biases may exist. “Silicon Valley tends to be more liberal than not,” said Potts. “There is the possibility of unconscious bias.”
However, sociology professor Francesca Tripodi disputed claims of discrimination. “There are anecdotes that some people or organizations have seen their content removed or minimized,” she stated. “[But] these accusations lack systematic evidence that this was based on some political decision by executives.”
Watch the hearing live now: https://t.co/rabmmH52fy
— Josh M Shepherd (@JoshMShep) April 10, 2019
Konzelman offered his take on the underlying technology issues. “The algorithms [for these platforms] are closely guarded secrets,” he said. “These algorithms may be applied objectively, but I believe there is bias built into the algorithms.”
Last month, a former Facebook employee provided documentation of bias on the platform. Specifically, certain conservative pages appeared to be tagged with a “deboost” code invisible to users.
“You can always point to it and say: The computer made me do it,” said Konzelman. “But a computer does exactly what you to tell it to do.”
Google, TV Networks Refuse Unplanned Ads
The Unplanned co-director offered details of which networks refused to run TV ads and censorship from Google, previously unreported.
“Frankly, I wasn’t aware of this until we started pulling together this testimony,” said Konzelman. “We got a flat refusal from Google to run any of our banner ads, which are not exactly controversial.”
Their ads picture actress Ashley Bratcher with the film’s tagline: What She Saw Changed Everything.
Before questioning Konzelman in the hearing, Cruz called Unplanned “one of the most powerful and moving movies I have ever seen.” He continued: “I thought I was prepared to see the movie, and I was not.”
Cultural Impact Despite Setbacks
Konzelman offered insights into the film’s cultural impact. He spoke of how calls to And Then There Were None founded by Abby Johnson have increased since its release. The nonprofit group helps abortion clinic workers leave the abortion industry.
“After about ten days in release, she has had  abortion workers in the U.S. seeking help to leave the industry,” said Konzelman. He backed up his next claim with statistics. “One percent of the abortion workers in the United States, after getting one look at them[selves] being portrayed on film, have decided to change… what they do for a living.”
Closing in on $14 million at the box office, Unplanned heads into its third weekend hoping to again outperform expectations.
“Our second weekend was a little soft, but we’re only seeing a seven percent drop in theaters,” said the co-director. “We’ve had an uptick in awareness as the word gets out. The Washington Post was actually favorable to the film — my goodness, what world did I wake up in?
“This weekend, Unplanned will be playing on 1,400 screens so I’m going to count my blessings,” concluded Konzelman. “We get another crack at it, which most films don’t get.”