Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor in the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, writes about issues affecting women and social media. She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN.
Now that the Supreme Court has ended the constitutional right to abortion, we can expect women who need the procedure to turn to the internet in search of resources.
That’s a problem because much of what they’ll find online, including on social networks, is inaccurate and downright dangerous. Researchers say abortion misinformation – like TikTok videos falsely claiming that abortions can be self-induced with herbs – has been spreading.
Tech companies need to step in urgently to point people who need abortions toward accurate information – and help safeguard their privacy in the process.
Abortion misinformation is already rampant online. A 2021 study published by PLOS ONE evaluated the top 10 webpages presented by Google for a search of “abortion pill” in 2018. Of the webpages with “text-based educational content,” only one site – the Planned Parenthood webpage –contained information that was deemed “high-quality and usable.” Among the search results were sites that tried to dissuade women from getting abortions in the first place.
It’s terrifying to think that people in search of reliable information could instead find links to things like dangerous pills, unsafe home recipes for abortion or underground abortion providers, because illegal abortions can prove deadly.
But it may not be immediately obvious to women searching for resources that the misinformation they find is inaccurate or dangerous. Research shows that people find it difficult to identify so-called “fake news” under ordinary circumstances – and we can expect people seeking abortions to already be upset, stressed and scared, making it even harder for them to think clearly and remember to investigate the reliability of their sources. So, internet platforms need to help them.
Just as social networks have tried to combat fake news about elections and vaccines by creating resource centers with links to accurate information, they should also create resource hubs for people who need abortions. The resource centers should provide links to accurate, legitimate information, including their closest legal abortion providers and information on how to obtain abortion pills from legitimate companies.
With the legality of aiding women in search of abortions so unclear, companies might fear putting themselves in jeopardy by steering women in the direction of credible resources. A Texas law, for instance, allows for anyone “aiding and abetting” a woman seeking an abortion to be sued. But Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act also protects internet platforms from being sued for the user-created content they host or moderate, giving social media companies a strong legal argument to stand on. And, ultimately, social media platforms – and search engine technology companies like Google – should have the backbone to take a risk to protect the lives of their users.
Of course, a big difference between resource hubs that social networks have created on other topics in the past and one that might be created for abortion information is that abortion resource forums need to be designed squarely with privacy in mind, since one big fear is that women who obtain abortions in states where they’re illegal might be prosecuted using data from their apps or phones or other digital records kept by tech companies.
Tech companies shouldn’t keep records of anyone who uses abortion resource centers – nor should they record other searches for abortion-related information or location data of those who make visits to abortion providers. Google has, thankfully, already said it won’t store this type of location data, but that’s just the start of the steps the company – and others – should be taking to help and protect their users.
There’s also still the danger that women could be prosecuted using data law enforcement officers subpoena from their phones. So, the resource centers should also explain in simple, easy-to-follow ways how women can permanently delete evidence of their searches from their personal devices, as well as data they’ve entered into apps like period trackers.
Tech companies like Meta and Google have been trying to support abortion rights by offering to pay for the travel of their employees who need to go to other states to obtain them. But, so far, they haven’t done enough to support their users, who we can expect to increasingly go online when seeking out resources. That’s unacceptable.
It’s also especially eyebrow-raising that tech companies aren’t stepping up to provide people seeking abortions with the information they need when you consider that women are the majority of the users of platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
Social networks and search engines need to start actively directing people seeking abortions to accurate information – and help them eliminate records of their searches. They shouldn’t wait around for women to die or badly harm themselves based on misinformation they find online before taking action.