People seeking abortions encounter a flood of misinformation online
Misinformation researchers, as well as reproductive rights advocates, worry that what abortion seekers find online can sometimes leave them even more confused and steer them towards options that can be misleading, even dangerous.
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“People always want to help themselves, and in this age of connectivity, we trust what we see,” said Danielle Citron, a University of Virginia law professor who researches the law and technology. Citron worries that misinformation about abortion and intentional misinformation are only increasing now.
Social media companies have struggled for years to reliably and thoroughly remove harmful information from their sites, including misleading coronavirus information, lies about the 2020 election and anti-vaccine propaganda – despite, in in many cases, with companies going to great lengths to moderate problematic posts. Many platforms have been built on the principle of free speech, though companies have had to add algorithms and thousands of humans to police content that breaks the rules on their sites.
The nature of social media means that millions of people post millions of messages every day, creating a challenge for corporate employees and artificial intelligence. Tech companies have faced significant backlash and concerns over their lack of action, and advocates say some misleading messages about abortion have already been sidelined for too long.
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The Supreme Court overturned last month Roe vs. Wade, triggering nationwide laws that have made abortion illegal for millions of Americans. The decision sparked protests in real life and online, including from many abortion-rights supporters who told their online followers that if they ever had to “camp” outside the State, they would have a place to stay. The code word was widely used on social media to signal to supporters that they would have a safe place to travel to for abortions, sometimes paired with a Chainsmokers song.
Jenna Sherman, program manager of the digital health lab at the non-profit technology association Meedan, said that since the court’s decision, she had seen posts from abortion rights supporters online offering advice on access to health care and sometimes disturbing advice on how to manage abortions.
One trend has been the posting of videos, tweets and images of herbs including mugwort, pennyroyal and black cohosh. These posts state that these herbs “may be used to induce miscarriage.” A video on TikTok, which has since been deleted, showed a caption that read, “Herbs that can induce abortion from govt. is suspect”, which means suspect. It had racked up over 23,000 views.
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“There are no safe and effective herbs or medicinal plants to induce abortion,” said Jen Gunter, gynecologist and author of “The Vagina Bible,” in her own TikTok video in response to the trend. “People may be spreading this with good intentions, but they’re wrong.”
Nisha Verma of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists noted that people “have been self-managing their abortions for decades with support from community organizations and medical experts.” She noted that people can do this now with drugs like misoprostol.
“It’s important for people to understand that social media posts can be unreliable and can sometimes spread misinformation,” Verma said in emailed comments. “Misinformation can be harmful because it can lead people to try to end their pregnancy in dangerous ways, potentially exposing them to serious bodily harm.”
In an emailed statement, TikTok spokesperson Jamie Favazza said the company allows mentions of abortion and access to abortion, and will remove videos that encourage “based on” abortions. plants” or “natural”. Many posts have been deleted following reports by Rolling Stone and Input Mag. Some similar posts were removed from TikTok and Instagram after The Washington Post inquired about them.
Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, said it allows posts and ads promoting health services, including abortion. Spokesman Kevin McAlister said the company is banning the direct sale of all prescription drugs, including the abortion drugs misoprostol and mifepristone. The company also prohibits messages that target people related to their sexual activity and targeting people with lethal violence, he said.
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Twitter spokesperson Trenton Kennedy said the company generally allows discussions about abortion and contraceptives. Twitter does not have a specific misinformation policy for the topic.
Google said Friday it would remove certain places people have visited from their online location histories, including medical facilities like abortion clinics.
The biggest concern online for Erin Matson, the executive director of Reproaction, which works to increase access to abortion, is misinformation being spread by anti-abortion activists.
“The anti-abortion movement has long flooded the internet with misinformation about how abortion works, about how pregnancy works,” she said. Common misrepresentations include claiming that abortion causes infertility or that medical abortion is unsafe.
Verma of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said medical abortions and abortion procedures are safe. “It is important to note that abortion is much safer than pregnancy and childbirth,” she added.
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Gerrit De Vynck contributed to this report.