Oct 18, 2022 - Technology

Social media loses ground on abortion misinformation

Illustration of a phone growing a wooden Pinocchio nose.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Big Tech platforms are blocking abortion-pill distribution information and permitting false narratives about abortion to spread, more than 100 days after the Supreme Court's ruling overturning a constitutional right to abortion.

Why it matters: Social media firms were caught flat-footed by that sudden change in the legal and informational landscape at a time when there's an overwhelming, sudden need for solid information and access to healthcare services online.

The big picture: Abortion rights advocates say that misinformation around reproductive health online has gotten worse since the Dobbs decision in June striking down Roe v. Wade.

  • "Evidence shows that misinformation and disinformation about reproductive health care, especially abortion, is on the rise on social media platforms and right-wing, anti-choice news sites," Julia Bennett, senior director of digital education and learning strategy at Planned Parenthood, told Axios.

Driving the news: Most major platforms don't have abortion-specific misinformation policies. Only YouTube has rolled out an abortion-related policy since the Dobbs decision. TikTok includes medical misinformation about vaccines and abortion in its integrity policies.

  • Per new research from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a nonprofit focused on extremism and disinformation, TikTok, YouTube and Meta have allowed dis- and misinformation about abortion to spread and be monetized in the months since the court's decision.
  • "Policies that do exist (under health misinformation policies, policies against graphic imagery, etc.) are not properly enforced when it comes to abortion-related content," ISD researchers write in an upcoming study shared with Axios.

Catch up fast: Shortly after Roe was overturned, more than 200 medical organizations and non-profits sent a letter to top executives at Meta, YouTube, TikTok and Twitter saying that "medical disinformation is a threat to public health."

State of play: In addition to false or misleading narratives being circulated on platforms, accounts that link people to information about abortion pills or pro-choice candidates are being flagged and taken down.

  • Sara Tabatabaie, chief political officer for #Voteprochoice, told Axios that the group was blocked from using its social media content scheduling tool to post on Facebook for allegedly "violating guidelines."
  • Tabatabaie said this was because the group’s Facebook posts were "flooded with hate comments" and were being "falsely reported."
  • Women on Web, a nonprofit which connects people to abortion pill access, had its Instagram account taken down without much explanation, Martha Dimitratou, digital strategist for the organization, told Axios. After contacting Meta, she said, Women on Web was told the reason for the suspension was "that our account went against their 'Community Guidelines' by inciting people 'to purchase, sell, raffle, gift, transfer, or trade certain goods and services on our platform.'"

Between the lines: "Access to correct information in this era is even more important than before, given the rapidly-changing laws around abortion," the ISD researchers write, since inaccurate information can lead people "to make dangerous decisions about their healthcare."

  • Even though the medical facts about abortion are more extensive and stable than those around COVID, the platforms have a "complacency" and "refusal to take hardline action" even when their policies call for it, Jenna Sherman, program manager at the digital health lab at Meedan, a technology nonprofit focusing on technology and reproductive health, told Axios.

Areas the report focuses on include:

  • False information around medication abortion and other procedures and how they work.
  • "Undue" comparisons of abortion to tragedies, genocide and the Holocaust.
  • Non-English speaking countries as an especially weak spot in platforms' efforts to provide reliable abortion information. ISD researchers wrote that YouTube's labels didn't show up when videos were accessed from a non-English speaking country.

Claims that the effects of abortion pills can be "reversed," which experts say are not scientifically based, are particularly worrisome to the medical community.

  • The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says that this treatment is "unproven and unethical."
  • "The regimen touted as medication abortion reversal is not proven to be effective in a scientifically meaningful way, and in some research, it has been shown to be potentially dangerous," said Nisha Verma, former ACOG fellow and a practicing OB-GYN in Georgia.
  • Yet some states now require doctors to give women being administered abortion pills information on such treatment, per Politifact.
  • ISD researchers found promotions of the "reversal" treatment in 1,138 posts on Meta-owned platforms, posted by 559 unique accounts with a combined following of 58 million.

What they're saying: Elena Hernandez, a YouTube spokesperson, told Axios that the company will remove a video that "provides instructions for unsafe abortion methods or promotes false claims about abortion safety."

  • Hernandez said YouTube has panels that provide information from local and global authorities in the U.S. and the U.K., and it plans to expand to additional countries and languages.
  • "We work with independent fact-checking partners to assess content so that we can remove violations of our policies," said Jamie Favazza, a TikTok spokesperson.
  • Meta declined to comment.

The bottom line: Advocates hope to see platforms invest in making their algorithms and moderation systems smarter on abortion information. "I know that platforms are busy, and they have a lot of topics to cover and moderate," said Sherman. "But we all use the internet."

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