Anti-abortion pills: the last front in the battle against misinformation on social networks

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This type of content falls into a gray area in many social media platforms’ policies on how to handle misinformation – an area where definitive research does not exist and the level of danger is unclear. As a result, they struggle to find the right approach and sometimes allow abortion reversal content even though they block posts on how to get medical abortions.

It’s a difficult situation that highlights the unique challenges faced by companies from Facebook to Twitter and YouTube as they try to moderate abortion misrepresentations on their sites without inserting themselves into a highly politicized debate.

Disinformation researchers say the rise in abortion reversal content appears to sow doubt and confusion online, muddying the waters around the effectiveness of medical abortions, which pregnant women can still get by mail, even in states that have banned the procedure.

“Misinformation and disinformation are really designed to confuse you in this situation and make more of the ideological arguments and conspiracies in ways that cloud your judgment on how easy or safe it is to access an abortion,” said Rachel Moran. , postdoctoral. researcher at the University of Washington School of Information studying health misinformation.

The posts allege that these abortion reversal treatments – which involve giving individual progesterone after ingesting the first pill (mifepristone) in the two-pill medical abortion treatment – will stop the abortion. Websites and hotlines touting abortion reversal have stated that progesterone is given as a pill, although it has been studied as an injection. Mifepristone blocks the flow of progesterone needed to sustain a pregnancy, and misoprostol causes cramps that expel biological tissue.

The National Committee for the Right to Life – one of the largest anti-abortion groups – backs the alleged treatment and says women deserve to know it’s an option.

But the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the leading national organization of reproductive health clinicians, said reversal therapy is not backed by science and can cause dangerous bleeding. And one 2019 trial evaluating abortion reversal treatment with progesterone ended prematurely due to three participants having high levels of internal bleeding.

Dr. Mary Jacobson, chief medical officer of Alpha Medical, a women’s health telemedicine group that is adding medical abortion as a service, called progesterone treatment “an idea not proven and unethical that suggests an oversimplification of the hormonal complexity and neurochemical processes of a medical abortion can be manipulated.

However, to date, federal health agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have not weighed in on the safety or effectiveness of administering progesterone as a way to reverse an abortion. medicated, which makes it harder for the platforms. to navigate misinformation without an authoritative federal voice to quote. An FDA spokesperson said it has not approved any anti-abortion pill products.

The content of the anti-abortion pill is just a subset of the misinformation circulating online as debates about the Dobbs decisions are proliferating on social networks. Other fake content from anti-abortion groups includes posts saying FDA-approved medical abortion causes cancer and infertility, even though medical abortion has been proven to be safer than Tylenol. And on the abortion rights side, individuals are spreading misinformation about home herbal treatments to induce abortion, which can be potentially toxic.

Overall, the largest platforms removed more content related to potentially dangerous herbal treatments from abortion rights groups, and less content about abortion reversal treatments anti-abortion groups, said Jenna Sherman, program manager at Meedan’s Digital Health Lab, a global tech nonprofit focused on health misinformation research.

“It’s good that all the articles on natural remedies for abortion are regulated, but it’s worrying that they are over-regulated in relation to the anti-choice rhetoric, which is also very harmful,” he said. she declared.

The biggest social media platforms have taken different approaches to moderating the onslaught of misconceptions about abortion. ByteDance’s TikTok and Google’s YouTube have new policies in place to specifically address content promoting unsafe abortion procedures and false claims about abortion treatments.

TikTok medical misinformation policy prohibits content that can harm bodily integrity, and which includes abortion reversal and herbal abortion content, spokesperson Jamie Favazza said. But enforcement has been uneven. POLITICO identified videos promoting abortion cancellation hotlines and alleged reversal treatment testimonials and reported them to TikTok, which then removed them because they violated its policies, Favazza said. .

The company had blocked any search-related content from “herbal abortions“earlier this year and August blocked searches related to search terms”abortion pill reversal” and “abortion reversal pill”, after POLITICO identified videos on the subject. However, the search term “abortion reversal” is still unlocked as it also includes knockdown related content Roe vs. Wade, said Favazza. However, the results also include videos pushing content for abortion reversal pills, which TikTok removed after POLITICO flagged them.

YouTube started delete videos in july who provided instructions for unsafe abortions or promoted false claims about abortion safety under his medical misinformation policies. These included videos falsely claimed that abortion leads to cancer or infertility. It also bans videos that sell pharmaceuticals without a prescription, which would include anti-abortion pills. And YouTube added “context tags” to abortion content which refers to the National Library of Medicine’s description of abortion.

However, YouTube allows for a general discussion of abortion reversal treatments. Spokeswoman Ivy Choi said the company would look to the CDC, NIH and WHO if they set guidelines on these alleged treatments. YouTube has also added tags to posts from pregnancy crisis centers — which advise pregnant women against abortion and sometimes push anti-abortion pills — to note that they don’t offer abortions.

Twitter allows discussion of abortion — including abortion reversal content — but uses its Twitter moments and Events pages to promote authoritative information and dispel misleading accounts, spokeswoman Elizabeth Busby said.

Meta, parent company of Facebook and Instagram, prohibits the promotion of medical misinformation if it is shown to cause harm, as well as the sale of pharmaceutical drugs. Ads promote prescription drugs too require prior approval (including those that cause abortions) and must be from verified pharmaceutical companies, pharmacies or telehealth providers.

Still, two advertisements promoting an abortion pill cancellation hotline from anti-abortion groups was active on Facebook as Friday afternoon. A Facebook spokesperson said the ads were permitted because they did not mention a pharmaceutical drug – like progesterone – by name. Meanwhile, Plan C, an advocacy organization that provides resources on medical abortion, showed POLITICO several ads about how to get medical abortion pills that Facebook rejected. The Facebook spokesperson said the ads were blocked because the websites landing page on the ads listed pharmaceutical abortion drugs by name.

Some of the flurry of anti-abortion content online may be linked to efforts by abortion rights groups to demystify it.

People’s engagement with all kinds of abortion-related posts on social media platforms tends to increase after new restrictions on abortion come into effect, said Rachel Muller Heyndyk, senior fact checker in the Kingdom. -Uni, Logically.ai. As the conversation grows, content from anti-abortion groups promoting abortion reversal pills gets swept up in it.

“The more we engage with him, even if it’s to criticize him, the more we’ll see him on our feed,” Muller Heyndyk said. She said that because Facebook doesn’t decide whether abortion-reversal content is dangerous or not, “it inadvertently rewards these pages.”

For example, the week after Texas’ six-week abortion ban went into effect last September, there were 170,000 interactions on anti-abortion pill content on Facebook, compared to less than 200 interactions in the previous month, according to data from CrowdTangle.

If social media companies are waiting for more guidance from the federal government on how to handle information about abortion cancellation proceedings, it may take some time.

While FDA chief Robert Califf has promised to make tackling health misinformation a priority, the agency has so far devoted more resources to combating lies about Covid-19 and monkeypox. The agency launched a new website in early August called “Rumor Control” which tackles these two diseases, but does not tackle misinformation about abortion.

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