Faith-based

I Saw the Hit Anti-Abortion Movie That the “Social Media Masters” Don’t Want You to See

It was quite a trip.

In this still from Unplanned, actress Emma Elle Roberts leans over an office desk while wearing a shirt that says "Hope." Jared Lotz's back is to the camera, as he is seated behind the desk.
Emma Elle Roberts and Jared Lotz as Marilisa and Shawn Carney in Unplanned.
Pure Flix

It wouldn’t be a conservative movie launch without dark whisperings of a conspiracy of suppression. When the 2018 anti-abortion drama Gosnell performed above box office expectations in its first week, producers generated another wave of publicity by accusing theater owners of dropping the film due to its content. The stars of other high-profile Christian movies have talked of blacklists, persecution, and Hollywood rejection. So it could only be seen as a sign from God when Twitter suspended the official account for the anti-abortion drama Unplanned the day after its theatrical debut last weekend. “I think we all know why,” the movie’s account tweeted after it was reinstated. “Perhaps it’s because we are moving the needle, making a difference and changing hearts and minds.”

Perhaps. The R-rated Christian drama performed surprisingly well in its opening weekend, taking in more than $6 million and coming in fourth at the box office. The movie also received a rare A+ rating from CinemaScore, which tracks audience reactions. This suggests the movie either changed a whole lot of “hearts and minds,” or that it is preaching to the choir. In any case, it’s a hit.

Unplanned is based on a best-selling 2011 memoir by Abby Johnson, a celebrity within the pro-life movement. Johnson had two abortions herself as a young woman and volunteered as an escort at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas. She eventually rose to become director there, before dramatically renouncing her former career and landing in a much more prominent role as a pro-life activist. The opening scene of the movie portrays the moment Johnson characterizes as her conversion: Asked to assist a doctor with a surgical abortion, she says she saw the fetus recoil from the doctor’s probe and awoke to the moral horror in which she had been complicit for years. Johnson quit her job the next day, with support from a local anti-abortion group who often prayed outside her clinic. (In 2010, Texas Monthly questioned this timeline and Johnson’s description of her departure.) Within six weeks of quitting her job, she had been interviewed by Bill O’Reilly, Mike Huckabee, and Pat Robertson’s talk show The 700 Club. She went on to found a nonprofit that says it has helped almost 500 abortion-clinic workers leave their jobs.

The mainstream pro-life movement argues not just that abortion is murder, but that Planned Parenthood in particular is a bloodthirsty, profit-driven behemoth. It’s an important rhetorical emphasis because it turns the women who have abortions into victims of an evil institution, rather than perpetuators of evil themselves. Unplanned, too, portrays most of the women who visit Abby’s clinic as genuinely struggling—young, poor, or saddled with bad boyfriends and unsupportive families. With a nod to a long-running debate within the pro-life community, the movie also makes a distinction between protesters who scream at the women outside the clinic and those who talk and pray with them. And to the movie’s credit, Abby’s fellow clinic workers are portrayed as largely friendly and earnest.

But the clinic is ruled over by a Cruella de Vil type who personifies every conservative trope about both career women and abortion workers. Glamorous, ambitious Cheryl (Robia Scott) scorns Abby’s decision to get married and to keep her own pregnancy. “Abortion is what pays your salary,” she sneers when Abby pushes back on pressure to increase the number of procedures at the clinic. “Soros, Buffett, Gates: That’s who we have on our side,” she warns after Abby quits. “You’ve managed to make an enemy of one of the most powerful organizations in the country.” Unplanned was financed in part by Michael Lindell, a Trump-supporting entrepreneur who has a cameo at the end of the movie as a bulldozer operator who (spoiler alert) triumphantly pushes down the Planned Parenthood sign at Abby’s former clinic.

Meanwhile, some confusing Twitter errors over the weekend convinced many fans that the movie was the victim of a secret campaign to suppress its message. On Saturday, the film’s official account was briefly suspended. The film’s star, Ashley Bratcher, tweeted about the suspension, and news spread quickly in conservative circles. When the account was restored, it was glitchy, with its follower count inconsistent and some users having trouble getting their “follow” clicks to stick. Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that the glitch was an example of “the Social Media Masters only letting people see what they want them to see and believe.” I experienced the glitch myself over the weekend when I saw conservatives in my feed discussing it. Others saw conspiracy in the movie’s failure to trend on Twitter. “Big Tech’s attempted censorship of @UnplannedMovie is deeply troubling,” Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted. “Why is the Left so afraid of people seeing this powerful story?”

The movie’s account was restored within an hour and a half, an estimate confirmed by producer Joe Knopp. But that was enough to convince fans that the suspension was a result of “pro-abortion bias,” as prominent activist Lila Rose alleged. A Twitter spokesperson told me that the suspension was automatically triggered because the system perceived that an account related to Unplanned’s had been suspended at some point in the past. Twitter scans for evidence of “ban evasion”—accounts opened by people who have previously been booted from the platform. (The Unplanned account has been tweeting since September, so it is not clear why Twitter’s system flagged it last weekend.) When an account is reinstated after a ban, the company said, it takes time for the follower count to stabilize; the follow-button glitch is a not-uncommon related issue.

An algorithmic glitch is less glamorous than a grand narrative of suppression, and needless to say the brief suspension has not hurt the movie’s word-of-mouth publicity efforts. The movie has picked up about 275,000 Twitter followers since Saturday, and Knopp said it would appear in 700 new theaters next weekend. But that tidy oppression narrative was muddied shortly after the account’s restoration, when it included “WWG1WGA” in a now-deleted tweet about the suspension; that’s shorthand for a slogan associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory. Knopp disavowed the tweet and blamed it on the intern of a contractor.

Distributed by Pure Flix, best known for the 2014 drama God’s Not Dead about a student who challenges an atheist philosophy professor, Unplanned performed strongest last weekend in the South and Midwest. But a screening I attended in New Hampshire on Monday was nearly full, an unusual turnout for an early weekday matinee. That day, Mike Pence tweeted from his official @VP account that the movie was “deeply inspiring” and that “more & more Americans are embracing the sanctity of life because of powerful stories like this one.” He was referring, surely, to Johnson’s life story. But the story of the conniving cabal of “Social Media Masters” should not be underestimated either.