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People searching for abortion online must wade through misinformation

Abortion misinformation might only get worse, researchers warn

Alexis McGill Johnson, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and other abortion rights activists demonstrate on June 30 in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

False and misleading information about abortion is spreading online, and researchers fear it will only get worse in the wake of the Supreme Court decision on Dobbs.

On TikTok, videos suggesting that people use herbs to self-manage an abortion have racked up thousands of views. Antiabortion activists have shared false information on Twitter about the supposed dangers of abortion. And the New York attorney general sent a letter to Google last week urging the company to point abortion seekers on Google Maps to valid health-care offices that offer the treatment, rather than to “crisis pregnancy centers,” which try to dissuade people from getting abortions.

Disinformation researchers, as well as reproductive rights advocates, are concerned that what abortion-seekers find online can sometimes leave them even more confused and point them toward options that may be misleading or even dangerous.

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“People always want to help themselves, and in this era of connectivity, we trust what we see,” said Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Virginia who researches law and technology. Citron is worried that abortion misinformation and intentional disinformation will only increase now.

Social media companies have struggled for years to reliably and completely remove harmful information from their sites, including misleading coronavirus information, lies about the 2020 election and anti-vaccine propaganda — despite, in many cases, the companies taking significant efforts to moderate the problematic posts. Many of the platforms were built on the premise of free speech, although the companies have had to add algorithms and thousands of humans to police rule-breaking content on their sites.

The nature of social media means that millions of people are making millions of posts every day, creating a challenge for companies’ employees and artificial intelligence. Tech companies have faced significant backlash and concern about their lack of action, and advocates say some misleading abortion posts have already been left up for far too long.

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The Supreme Court last month overturned Roe v. Wade, triggering laws around the country that made abortion illegal for millions of Americans. The decision sparked real-life and online protests, including from many abortion rights supporters who told followers online that if they ever needed to go “camping” out of state, they would have a place to stay. The code word has been used widely across social media to signal to supporters that they would have a safe place to travel to get an abortion, sometimes coupled with a song by the Chainsmokers.

Jenna Sherman, the program manager of the digital health lab at tech nonprofit Meedan, said since the court’s decision she has seen posts from abortion rights supporters online offer health-care access tips and sometimes worrisome advice to manage abortions.

One trend has been the posting of videos, tweets and images of herbs including mugwort, pennyroyal and blue cohosh. Those posts advise that these herbs “can be used to cause a miscarriage.” One video on TikTok, which has since been removed, showed a caption that read, “Herbs that can cause abortion since the gov. is being sus,” which means suspicious. It had racked up more than 23,000 views.

Abortion rights supporters are trying to help people access care, experts say, but their methods could be harmful.

“There are no safe, effective herbs or botanicals to cause abortion,” Jen Gunter, a gynecologist and author of “The Vagina Bible” said in her own TikTok video in response to the trend. “People might be spreading this with good intention, 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 the support of community organizations and medical experts.” She noted that people can do this now with medications like misoprostol.

“It is important for people to understand that social media posts can be unreliable and can sometimes propagate misinformation,” Verma said in emailed comments. “Misinformation can be harmful, because it may lead people to try to end their pregnancies in an unsafe way, potentially exposing them to serious bodily harm.”

In an emailed statement, TikTok spokeswoman Jamie Favazza said the company allows mentions of abortion and abortion access, and will remove videos that encourage “herbal” or “natural” abortions. Many posts were removed following reporting 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-care services, including abortion. Spokesman Kevin McAlister said the company prohibits the direct sale of all prescription drugs, including abortion medications misoprostol and mifepristone. The company also bans posts that target people related to their sexual activity and targeting people with lethal violence, he said.

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Twitter spokesman Trenton Kennedy said the company generally allows discussion of abortion and contraceptives. Twitter does not have a specific misinformation policy for the topic.

Google said on Friday it would delete some places people have visited from their location histories online, including medical facilities like abortion clinics.

The biggest online concern for Erin Matson, the executive director of Reproaction, which works to increase access to abortion, is false information spread by antiabortion activists.

“The antiabortion movement has long been flooding the internet with disinformation about how abortion works, about how pregnancy works,” she said. Common false statements include the claim that abortion causes infertility or that medication abortion is dangerous.

Verma of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said that medication abortions and abortion procedures are safe. “Importantly, abortion is much safer than pregnancy and childbirth,” she added.

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Gerrit De Vynck contributed to this report.

correction

A previous version of this article misstated the name of the recent Supreme Court decision. It is Dobbs, not Dodds. The article has been corrected.

Roe v. Wade and abortion access in America

Roe v. Wade overturned: The Supreme Court has struck down Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years has protected the right to abortion. Read the full decision here.

What happens next?: The legality of abortion will be left to individual states. That likely will mean 52 percent of women of childbearing age would face new abortion limits. Thirteen states with “trigger bans” will ban abortion within 30 days. Several other states where recent antiabortion legislation has been blocked by the courts are expected to act next.

State legislation: As Republican-led states move to restrict abortion, The Post is tracking legislation across the country on 15-week bans, Texas-style bans, trigger laws and abortion pill bans, as well as Democratic-dominated states that are moving to protect abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

How our readers feel: In the hours that followed the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Washington Post readers responded in droves to a callout asking how they felt — and why.

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