Social media loses ground on abortion misinformation

Illustration of a phone growing a wooden Pinocchio nose.

Image: Maura Losch/Axios

Big tech platforms are blocking information on abortion pill distribution and allowing the spread of false abortion narratives, more than 100 days after the Supreme Court ruling overturned a constitutional right to abortion.

Why it matters: Social media companies have been caught off guard by this sudden shift in the legal and information landscape at a time when there is an overwhelming, sudden need for robust information and access to online health services.

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

  • “Evidence shows that misinformation and disinformation about reproductive health care, particularly 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 do not have abortion-specific policies on misinformation. Only YouTube has introduced an abortion-related policy since the Dobbs decision. TikTok includes medical misinformation about vaccines and abortion in its integrity guidelines.

  • TikTok, YouTube and Meta have allowed disinformation and misinformation about abortion to spread in the months since the court decision and, according to a new study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a nonprofit organization that focuses on extremism and disinformation make money.
  • “Existing policies (under health misinformation policies, policies against graphic displays, etc.) are not properly enforced when it comes to abortion-related content,” write ISD researchers in an upcoming study shared with Axios.

Catch up fast: Shortly after Roe was ousted, more than 200 medical organizations and nonprofits sent a letter to top executives from Meta, YouTube, TikTok and Twitter saying that “medical disinformation poses a threat to public health.”

Game Status: In addition to false or misleading narratives being circulated on platforms, accounts linking people to information about abortion pills or pro-choice candidates will be flagged and removed.

  • Sara Tabatabaie, chief political officer of #Voteprochoice, told Axios that the group has been blocked from using its social media content scheduling tool to post on Facebook for allegedly “violating policies.”
  • Tabatabaie said it was because the group’s Facebook posts were “flooded with hate comments” and “misreported”.
  • The Instagram account of Women on Web, a nonprofit that connects people to access abortion pills, was taken down without much explanation, Martha Dimitratou, the organization’s digital strategist, told Axios. After contacting Meta, she said, Women on Web was told the reason for the ban was “that our account violated their ‘Community Guidelines’ by encouraging people to ‘purchase certain goods and services , sell, raffle, give away, transfer or trade on our platform.'”

Between the lines: “Access to accurate information is even more important than before at this time in the face of rapidly changing abortion laws,” the ISD researchers write, as inaccurate information can lead people “to make dangerous decisions about their health care.”

  • Although the medical facts about abortion are more extensive and stable than those surrounding COVID, the platforms show a “complacency” and “refusal to take tough action” even when their policies call for it, Jenna Sherman, program manager at the Digital Health Lab at Meedan , a nonprofit technology organization focused on technology and reproductive health, Axios said.

Areas the report focuses on include:

  • False information about medical abortions and other procedures and how they work.

  • “Invalid” comparisons of abortion to tragedy, genocide and the Holocaust.
  • Non-English speaking countries as a particularly weak point in platforms’ efforts to provide reliable information on abortion. ISD researchers wrote that YouTube’s labels were not displayed when accessing videos from a non-English speaking country.

Claims that the effects of abortion pills “Reversed,” which experts say has no scientific basis, are of particular concern to the medical community.

  • The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says this treatment is “unproven and unethical.”
  • “The regimen, touted as the reverse of medical abortion, has not been shown to be scientifically valid, and some research has shown it to be potentially dangerous,” said Nisha Verma, a former ACOG grantee and practicing OB-GYN in Georgia.
  • However, some states require doctors to provide information about such treatment to women who are given abortion pills, Politifact said.
  • ISD researchers found promotions for the “reversal” treatment in 1,138 posts on Meta-owned platforms, posted by 559 individual accounts with a total following of 58 million.

What you say: Elena Hernandez, a YouTube spokeswoman, told Axios that the company would remove a video that “contains instructions for unsafe abortion methods or promotes false claims about abortion safety.”

  • Hernandez said YouTube has panels providing information from local and global authorities in the US and UK and plans to expand to more countries and languages.
  • “We work with independent fact-checking partners to assess content so we can remediate violations of our policies,” said Jamie Favazza, a spokesperson for TikTok.
  • Meta declined to comment.

The bottom line: Proponents hope platforms will invest in making their algorithms and moderation systems smarter when it comes to abortion information. “I know platforms are busy and have a lot of issues to cover and moderate,” Sherman said. “But we all use the internet.”