Abortion Information Facing Online Censorship Globally

November 2, 2023

By Susan Buttenwieser for WMC News

Access to online information about abortion is increasingly under threat both in the United States and around the world. Both domestic and international reproductive health rights and justice organizations have reported facing censorship of their websites on social media platforms including Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok as well as on Google.

And it’s not just Big Tech that “prevents accurate abortion information from being available, it’s also entire governments,” said Martha Dimitratou, digital strategist for Women on Web (WOW), an international organization providing online abortion services and information in over 200 countries and Plan C, which provides up-to-date information on how people are accessing at-home abortion pill options online. “Women on Web’s website is blocked in South Korea, Turkey, and Spain.”

Women’s Link Worldwide, an international legal advocacy organization focused on gender, racial, and climate justice, brought legal action in Spain on behalf of WOW, and last October the Supreme Court ordered the partial reinstatement of their website; the website remains blocked, however. “I’m sure many people in the European Union would be surprised and shocked to hear that this is happening,” said Venny Ala-Siurua, executive director of WOW. “Not just the fact that WOW got censored in the first place, but also to learn that the Supreme Court ruling to unblock our site has not happened because of ‘technical difficulties.’ It goes to show that our rights are at risk and how the fight for abortion access is moving online. It also shows that sexual and reproductive rights are closely connected to our digital rights. The internet has become the main source of information around abortion, and access to high-quality and accurate information is critical for people to access abortion care and exercise their rights.”

In the United States, advocates cite the Supreme Court Dobbs decision last June, overturning Roe, as a motivating factor for social media platforms to suppress information about abortion. “Right after the Dobbs decision, the hashtags for #mifepristone and #misoprostol were temporarily hidden on Instagram, which [restricted] access to information about the two drugs used for medication abortions,” said Jane Eklund, tech and reproductive rights fellow at Amnesty International USA. “Many more posts were taken down across platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook, with most of the posts discussing medication abortion: how to have a medication abortion, the medications used in the procedure, how to access medication abortion online, etc.”

There has also been an increase in confusion about abortion and abortion access following the Dobbs decision, said Myra Gissel Durán, senior policy advocate at If/When/How, a legal reproductive justice organization. “Much of the widespread misinformation and suppression we’ve seen has been tied to people being forced to wade through an onslaught of bills and legal battles about abortion,” said Durán. “This constantly changing landscape has made it nearly impossible for people to understand their ability to access an abortion on their own.”

Organizations are having to utilize their already scarce resources countering online disinformation, according to Reproductive Rights and Justice Movement Leaders Respond to ‘Big Tech’ Suppression of Accurate Abortion Information, an October report from Reproaction, an organization that works to increase access to abortion and advance reproductive justice. “Disinformation online used to ebb and flow, but now we are seeing it consistently, especially in regard to abortion pills and since the mifepristone court case,” said Shireen Rose Shakouri, executive vice president and chief of staff at Reproaction.

Some state legislatures have introduced bills this year “that would block access to websites where people can access telehealth abortion care or aid the process of an abortion,” said Eklund. While nothing has passed so far, “it’s possible that similar bills in the future could be introduced or passed. Additionally, we want to make sure that this information isn’t censored on social media because an increasing number of people, especially young people, are getting their news and information on social media instead of traditional search engines.”

The United States is hugely influential, and “what happens in the U.S. is felt around the world,” said Dimitratou. “So when content is being blocked in the U.S. after Dobbs, these Big Tech policies are often applied in other countries, despite the legal or political context of the country. Like in Argentina, where abortion is legal, Google does not allow our ads to run. Big Tech has been responding to possible legal changes around the country in a rather reactive way: These companies take down our content and block our accounts before any policy changes even come into effect, as if taking a safety measure that will prevent them from being held accountable in any way. And Big Tech just isn’t inclined to ensure that the right information gets out there — they have not seen abortion as health information, they have seen it as political.”

Some advocates note that online censorship and misinformation has been going on for years. “In my experience working for Women First Digital for seven years now, I believe it all started when Trump became president,” said Michell Mor, senior manager of digital strategy and innovations at Women First Digital (WFD), a digital health enterprise that operates several reproductive health information websites. “How users interact with social media started to change, especially on sensitive topics that could impact how a society ‘behaves.’ The more political a topic is, the more censorship it’ll receive.” One of WFD’s websites, howtouseabortionpill.org, had its YouTube channel and English Facebook fan pages suspended on May 4. When WFD appealed, they were notified that that their YouTube channel would not be restored, without further explanations, Mor said. “We complained and with support from a contact in Silicon Valley, we were able to recover the accounts. Every year it’s [become] more difficult, especially when you handle global websites with no specific location.”

In states and countries where access to legal abortion is limited or nonexistent, “online information and online access to abortion through pills is key,” said Gema Fernández Rodríguez de Liévana, managing attorney at Women’s Link Worldwide. “In other, less restrictive [places], people are increasingly looking for self-management as an option to experience their abortions. This means that the ‘war on abortion’ has expanded to the digital space, where the abortion support movement is seeing an opportunity to expand access to scientific, truthful, reliable information, while the anti-abortion movement is also disseminating unscientific information and creating confusion to people as to what are the sources of ‘good’ information.”

Fourteen states have no clinics providing abortion care, so having access to accurate information about abortion care online is especially crucial. “People on multiple sides of the abortion issue are much more mobilized about what is happening online,” said Jackie Rotman, founder and CEO of the Center for Intimacy Justice, a watchdog focused on the intersection of technology and sexuality. But the reach of online censorship goes beyond international borders. “Regardless of where you are located, the impact of digital suppression is global.”

While abortion information is facing online censorship, crisis pregnancy centers, which masquerade as abortion providers but are actually operated by anti-abortion extremists, are still performing well in search engines, in part because they are well-funded, “unlike our movement,” said Ala-Siurua. “Crisis pregnancy centers run well-optimized websites and invest strategically in digital marketing. At the same time, search engines are de-promoting sites like ours because they don’t quite understand what modern, telemedicine abortion care looks like today. A concrete example of this is Google putting restrictions on ad accounts of telemedicine abortion services because they don’t have a physical address while that’s exactly the point of online abortion care — not having a physical address or clinic premises.”

Profiting From Deceit: How Google Profits From Anti-Choice Ads Distorting Searches For Reproductive Healthcare, a June report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which works to stop the spread of online hate and disinformation, found that CPCs spent over $10 million on Google Search ads for their clinics over the past two years. “In response to our report, Google claimed to have removed particular ads for fake clinics that violated its policies, but they did not take action on the systemic issues with fake clinic ads,” said Callum Hood, head of research at the Center for Countering Digital Hate. “In particular, Google has insisted that it does not need to label fake clinic ads that target users searching for the names of abortion providers, despite the real risk the users could be misled. It seems that the anti-choice movement is now investing in fake clinics ads primarily targeting people in states where abortion is still legal, in order to make it more difficult for people to reliably access abortion care in those states.”

Although there have been international conferences and webinars about digital suppression of abortion information, including several in the past few months alone, advocates are concerned that this issue isn’t getting enough attention. “One of the most important things to note is that the more we talk about this issue, the more we learn about activists and organizations who are facing digital suppression,” said Eklund. “Reposting posts about digital suppression from repro-rights organizations, and getting involved in abortion rights advocacy online are all actions people can take to amplify the conversation about digital suppression and ensure people can get the information that they need.”