‘One of the restraints on the vitriol and the filth that so often is part of the American political debate,” noted Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse in 2012, “is that candidates have to stand by their ads.” For many online platforms, however, fixing your name to your claim is no longer good enough for an ad to pass muster. Web publishers increasingly are censoring campaign advertisements for being “shocking” or “disrespectful.”
A week before Tuesday’s election, Google’s advertising platform rejected an ad from Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Republican Senate nominee in Tennessee. The ad showed left-wing protesters interrupting a moment of silence Mrs. Blackburn held at a rally for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. “Our advertising policies,” Google explained, “prohibit ads that contain shocking content, including profanity or swearing.” But Mrs. Blackburn’s ad had bleeped out the foul language.
This wasn’t a first for the Blackburn campaign: Twitter ruled last year that her ad mentioning the “sale of baby body parts” contained “an inflammatory statement that is likely to evoke a strong negative reaction.” Good luck taking a strong stance on abortion without evoking a strong negative reaction.
Mrs. Blackburn is not alone. In August, both Twitter and Facebook banned advertisements from Cambodian-American congressional candidate Elizabeth Heng. The California Republican’s ads showed images of skulls and Khmer Rouge death camps to highlight her family’s immigrant history. Facebook deemed the images “shocking, disrespectful, or sensational.”
Though Facebook and Twitter eventually reversed their bans against Ms. Heng’s ads and Mrs. Blackburn’s 2017 ad, Google is standing by its recent decision against Mrs. Blackburn.
Terms like “shocking” and “inflammatory” are vague and subjective, and social-media companies offer little transparency on how they enforce their rules. While many Americans dislike incendiary ads, empowering tech titans to dictate the decency of political advertising leads down a treacherous path. At best the rules are unpredictable and enforced unevenly. At worst the platforms can use their rules as a pretext for political discrimination.
Other advertising media cannot legally make these judgments. In April, perennial Oklahoma candidate Gary Richardson invoked the death of sportscaster Bob Barry Jr. at the hands of an illegal alien in a TV spot, despite the Barry family’s vocal objection. Local station KFOR explained that it had to run the ad even though the station was “displeased with their advertising tactics and the exploitation.” Under federal law, radio and television broadcasters must “permit purchase of reasonable amounts of time” for campaign advertisements and possess “no power of censorship over the material broadcast.”
While these rules were enacted in the 1930s, when there were only a few broadcasters in each market, in 1994 the Supreme Court upheld must-carry rules for cable operators in Turner Broadcasting System v. FCC. The First Amendment “does not disable the government from taking steps to ensure that private interests not restrict . . . the free flow of information and ideas,” the court ruled. The FCC also considers viewpoint diversity in mergers of both mobile-internet and cable companies.
The internet has increased the number of media voices. But the concentration of the search, online-advertising and social-network markets means a few companies have more control over what information reaches voters than any internet service provider or media conglomerate, much less a local radio station.
In April, Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress that political advertisements online are held to an “even higher standard than what you would have on TV.” If he’s serious, at the very least Facebook and other dominant online platforms should stop blocking political advertisements from qualified candidates.
Mr. Epstein is an antitrust attorney and freelance writer.