How platforms profited from abortion misinformation in the lead up to the overturning of Roe v. Wade
11 October 2022
By Clara Martiny
On June 24 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision and held that the US Constitution does not confer any right to abortion. This subsequently overturned both Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), two prior rulings which federally protected a person’s right to choose to have an abortion in the US.
Dobbs was first argued before the Supreme Court on December 1 2021, and on May 3 2022, Politico leaked a draft opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito suggesting SCOTUS was poised to overturn Roe in June 2022. This presented a unique opportunity to study the narratives surrounding abortion before the draft was leaked and after, in the period leading up to the decision’s announcement.
This Dispatch, based on a larger report recently released by ISD, covers key findings from this research, and policy recommendations for social media platforms. The research was conducted for English-language content worldwide, but with a focus on the US.
Four major social media platforms are severely lacking in abortion-related speech policies. Analysis of the community guidelines of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok revealed that none of these platforms have comprehensive policies or community guidelines surrounding abortion misinformation. YouTube and TikTok both attempt to address promotion of harmful products and abortion misinformation, but ISD analysts identified such content on both platforms.
Misinformation about the abortion pill and/or procedure was found on the platform leading up to the Dobbs decision. Misinformation about the abortion pill and/or procedure is widespread and unchecked on all four platforms, pushing debunked claims, hyperbolic and graphic imagery, and content meant to instill uncertainty and fear about the topic of abortion.
YouTube has not thoroughly delivered on its promise to remove content containing abortion misinformation. YouTube announced on July 20 that it would remove “content that provides instructions for unsafe abortion methods” or “promotes false claims about abortion safety.” Despite this, and the recent inclusion of content that questions the safety of chemical and surgical abortion methods amongst content that violates YouTube’s Community Guidelines, researchers identified several monetized videos spreading false claims about abortions that had been uploaded before Roe was overturned. Researchers also found that information labels applied to YouTube videos about abortion did not appear when accessing the videos from a non-English speaking country.
Meta profited from ads on Facebook and Instagram containing or leading to misleading content about abortions. ISD analysts found that Meta made approximately $624,400 from Facebook and Instagram ads containing or leading to misleading content about abortion or abortion misinformation from top performing self-defined “pro-life” pages between November 1 2021 and June 24 2022. Ads containing or leading to misinformation about abortion gained almost 29 million impressions across Instagram and Facebook in the time frame investigated.
Meta continues to allow content promoting abortion pill “reversal,” an unscientific procedure according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. In total, ISD analysis identified 1,138 posts promoting the “reversal” which were posted by 559 unique accounts with a combined followership of 58 million. Analysts also identified several ads promoting the procedure.
Content comparing abortions to murder, genocide, slavery, and the Holocaust run unchecked on the platforms. Content making undue comparisons of abortion to tragedies or war crimes such as the Holocaust, genocide, murder and slavery was popular across all four platforms, garnering thousands of likes, views and interactions.
Platforms at an inflection point
The overturning of Roe and Casey on June 24 2022, did not come as a surprise to the American public – nor should it have been a surprise to social media platforms. The draft that was leaked on the evening of May 2 made it clear that SCOTUS intended to overturn both and marked a paradigm shift in the conversation surrounding abortion online. But even before the draft leak, the Dobbs case was argued to a 6-3 conservative majority Supreme Court. As such, social media platforms have had several substantial and blatant warnings that the conversation surrounding abortion online had the potential to become harmful, toxic, and full of false information. In spite of this, none of them implemented fundamental policy changes that would curb the spread of misinformation and harmful narratives about abortion on their platforms.
This is not the first time platforms have received warnings in advance and have acted too slowly. After the 2020 presidential election, when groups like “Stop the Steal” were gaining momentum, exploding in membership, and pushing false claims about the election, Meta rolled back its policies surrounding election disinformation, going as far as to disband its Civic Integrity team. While it eventually took down the largest group pushing the “Stop the Steal” rhetoric, it ignored groups that sprouted after it, tensions rising on its platforms, and the surge of misinformation leading up to the January 6 insurrection.
Similarly, in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, academics and scientists warned of a boom in conspiracies surrounding coronavirus. A video in May 2020 titled “Plandemic” with full of false claims about COVID-19 went viral on YouTube. By the time the platform took it down, it had been viewed 1.8 million times. The social media company then banned misinformation about coronavirus vaccines, but it took 18 months for it to ban anti-vaccine activists and anti-vaccine content. By then, versions of it had circulated on Facebook and TikTok. While all the platforms eventually took important steps to curb further mis- and disinformation, the lag in reaction time made it easy for bad actors to continue pushing false claims.
If platforms are not learning from their past mistakes, there could be serious consequences in upcoming months. Already, researchers are observing a surge of abortion misinformation targeting non-English-speaking communities in the U.S. ISD analysts found that, even though TikTok took down videos promoting abortion pill “reversal,” links to “reversal” hotlines and websites were found in the bio of a verified profile with over 500K followers. Analysts also found that YouTube’s rollout of information labels under abortion-related videos was imprecise – users from countries outside of the UK and US watching English videos did not have an information label. The ruling of the Dobbs case should not be a sign for platforms to slow or stop their efforts in curbing abortion-related misinformation. If anything, it should be a moment for overdue clear policy implementation.
With the 2022 U.S. midterms coming in November, platforms have already begun gearing up to combat election misinformation. Some experts argue that Facebook is using “old strategies” to fight potentially new ways of misinformation being spread. TikTok, which has strict policies against political advertising, is already running into problems with political influencers not disclosing their sponsors.
Finally, it is important to note that this report was focused on English-language content on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok. English-language content, especially for platforms like Facebook and Instagram, is supposed to be considerably better moderated than non-English content. Previous studies have shown that online misinformation is worse in Spanish, or that neglecting “linguistic minorities” can have harmful effects on those communities. When platforms do promise to enforce abortion-related speech and ad policies, they have to integrate non-English moderation, too. Only then can policies be considered complete.
Clara Martiny is a Digital Research Analyst at ISD US.