Report analyzes religious groups’ risks of internet ‘de-platforming’, calls for action

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Religious groups that speak on controversial topics are at risk of being removed from social media platforms and need to prepare, a legal education group says.

While a “de-platforming” event can pose significant operational problems, there are also ways to organize broad-based efforts to respond when a group faces sanctions from influential internet companies such as Amazon, Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter.

“It seems likely that religious groups and individuals will face mounting threats from tech companies. Their views on marriage, sexuality, life and other moral issues are unpopular among the Silicon Valley set,” Josh Holdenreid, vice president and executive director of Napa Legal Institute, said in a March 28 opinion essay for the Wall Street Journal, “Big Tech Censors Religion, Too.”

“Religious groups should refuse to silence themselves, change their views, or otherwise back down. Censorship is a symptom of a national collapse in civic culture. Curing the deeper disease will take all the courage and conviction we can muster,” he said.

Napa Legal is not a legal group, but aims to help educate faith-based non-profits on finances, corporate, tax and philanthropic issues, and some legal matters.

Its March 26 white paper briefing, “De-platforming: the threat facing faith-based organizations,” summarizes the problem and offers suggestions. According to the briefing, faith-based organizations have faced removal from important internet platforms “at least weekly” since the beginning of 2021.

“Big tech’s unpredictable de-platforming of faith-based organizations and their leaders has become so frequent that faith-based organizations can no longer rely on continuous service from these companies, particularly social media providers,” said the report. “Faith leaders must respond decisively to the changed landscape.”

“While policy debates over content moderation continue, faith-based nonprofits need to understand who is being de-platformed, why, and what strategies are effective for overcoming de-platforming,” it continued.

“Organizations centered around important cultural and policy issues are at greater risk of de-platforming,” said the briefing. “For example, pro-life organizations, pro-family organizations, Christian organizations addressing issues related to human sexuality, and faith-based news organizations have been targeted more often than organizations that run tutoring programs or soup kitchens.”

Holdenreid cited several examples of this de-platforming. The online book and retail seller giant Amazon removed Ryan T. Anderson’s book, “When Harry Became Sally,” which critiques transgender medical, philosophical, and political claims. TAN Books was blocked from running Facebook ads for several books: Paul Kengor’s anti-communist critique “The Devil and Karl Marx”; Carrie Gress’ cultural critique “The Anti-Mary Exposed: Rescuing the Culture from Toxic Femininity”; and Kimberly Cook’s critique of feminism, “Motherhood Redeemed”.

In October 2020, ahead of the U.S. presidential elections, a third-party Facebook factchecker claimed the Susan B. Anthony List made “misleading claims” about Joe Biden’s position on late-term abortions. The claim interfered with the pro-life political group’s ability to run its paid political ads on Facebook

Holdenreid said its response proved successful: “the group went on a media blitz, securing both a reversal and an apology.”

“When posts are removed, ads are blocked, and accounts are banned, public pushback and media criticism often lead tech companies to rethink their actions,” he said.

Twitter has also drawn criticism.

Holdenreid cited the blocking of a tweet of Bishop Kevin Doran of Elphin critiquing an assisted suicide push. The social media giant Twitter in January said it erroneously blocked the tweet, having mistaken it for a comment encouraging suicide.

That same month, Twitter blocked a post by the evangelical Christian group Focus on the Family’s outlet the Daily Citizen for its comments describing a transgender Biden nominee as a man who believes himself to be a woman.

A similar Twitter post from Catholic World Report, excerpting a Catholic News Agency report, described the nominee as “a biological man who identifies as a transgender woman.”

Twitter told CNA it blocked the Catholic World Report post in error. However, the Daily Citizen twitter account has gone unused since January. Twitter told the account owner that the account was suspended for “hateful conduct,” under which category Twitter includes “misgendering” of self-identified transgender individuals. Focus on the Family unsuccessfully appealed this ban.

The Napa Legal briefing said that organizations that are removed from social media platforms often receive “little or no explanation” for the removal. Some of these organizations indicated their attempts to communicate with big companies, in Napa Legal’s words, “seemed to fall into a ‘black hole’.”

De-platforming often impacts all functionality. Contacts, followers, and historical publications and posts for an account can become completely inaccessible, the briefing warned.

Sometimes organizations can have their accounts restored.

“Public pressure and media attention can help,” Napa Legal said, attributing successful restoration efforts to public support, “particularly through media coverage and related grassroots pressure, rather than to the tech company’s own appeal process.”

Commentary on the coronavirus epidemic and claims about vaccines can also lead to suspension.

Holdenreid noted YouTube’s ban on the channel of LifeSiteNews.

Google, YouTube’s owner, later said it had banned LifeSiteNews for violating its COVID-19 misinformation policy, including “content that promotes prevention methods that contradict local health authorities or “(the World Health Organization).” Channels that receive three strikes in a 90-day period will be permanently removed.

Most Catholic authorities have emphasized the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic and the moral permissibility of using COVID-19 vaccines if they use material of morally compromised origins, such as cells derived from an aborted fetus. However, LifeSiteNews has published some opinion and commentary that questions the pandemic and the use of the vaccines.

Previously, YouTube put a strike on a LifeSiteNews video of a Catholic bishop who has taken a strong position against the COVID vaccine, which he considers unethical. It also deleted a video of a Canadian physician who objected to what he sees as the “unfounded public hysteria” over COVID-19.

LifeSiteNews was previously suspended from Twitter for a period beginning in 2019 for its reports on a Canadian transgender activist who is biologically male but identifies as a woman. It also faced Twitter suspensions for reporting on Biden’s transgender nominee.

Napa Legal’s briefing listed several other “de-platforming” events. The briefing recommended that organizations self-assess their de-platforming risk. If the risk is significant, they should plan for the possible event to reduce the potential harm to the organization and its constituents and to increase the chances of a favorable resolution.

Organizations should intentionally connect to and support other faith-based groups.

“Don’t dilute your religious message or succumb to pressure not to share the truth,” said Napa Legal. “We need the truth more than ever, and the efforts to de-platform highlight that. Rather than acting out of fear, organizations should be prudent and plan ahead.”

The legal education group recommended consulting its March 4 briefing, “What to Do If Your Nonprofit Relies on Big Tech.”

In 2017 the Ruth Institute, a non-profit group dedicated to studying and explaining the effects of the sexual revolution, claimed that its ability to process donations online was cancelled because of its views on sexuality. Its payment processor Vanco said the group had been flagged for affiliations that promote hate, violence, harassment or abuse. The Ruth Institute strongly objected to such characterizations.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has listed mainstream Christian-friendly groups like the Ruth Institute and Alliance Defending Freedom as “hate groups” for their “anti-LGBT” stance. The center lists the groups alongside white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.

Source: CNA