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The Roe v. Wade leak is bringing an onslaught of medical misinformation and dangerous DIY interventions

The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter, tracking how anti-science disinformation is reshaping our world. Also in this edition: Beijingers fear looming lockdown, and a leading hydroxychloroquine doctor is back in the spotlight

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Since news broke that the U.S. Supreme Court is now in favor of overturning the historic Roe v. Wade decision, which would ban or significantly restrict abortion access in at least 22 states, the internet has been awash with misinformation. Everything from fake narratives about women’s fertility, to “DIY”  abortion alternatives, to conspiracy theories and misconceptions about reproductive health has permeated TikTok, Instagram and Twitter. 

The majority of the American public do not want to see an overturning of Roe v. Wade. For those who might need to circumvent state-imposed abortion bans, mail-order abortion pills — or abortifacients — are a key strategy. Abortion advocates campaign for them as a way to help millions of people safely end unwanted pregnancies themselves. But among patients and doctors alike, public knowledge about abortion in the U.S. is lacking. A study conducted in 2020 showed that 36% of respondents had never heard of a medication abortion, made up of mifepristone and misoprostol, the drugs that are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to induce one. Nurses and OB-GYNs have taken to social media to reassure their followers that medical abortion and taking Plan B (also known as the “morning after” pill) are not the same thing. 

Of course, it was only a matter of time before people started sharing information about DIY abortion options, with some promoting herbal methods that go right back to antiquity. It goes without saying that herbal abortion methods can be toxic and cause liver damage or even death. On wellness and new-age TikTok, users have been advocating for their use in light of the Roe news. “Guys! Be careful! Herbs such as sage, mugwort, fennel and goldenrod are unsafe! In large amounts, they could “accidentally” cause miscarriage,” one TikToker said, with a disclaimer “they can also cause organ failure, be safe.” The video has almost 36,000 likes. “It’s really sad that this is the type of information we need to spread now,” one commenter wrote. “Casually adding them to my Amazon cart,” said another.

In another corner of the internet, an anarchist collective has issued a video instructing people how to make DIY misoprostol pills. Misoprostol, an abortifacient, has various uses by obstetricians, but is also used to treat horse ulcers. The makers of the video obtained the drug from a veterinarian and pressed it into a three-dose pill regimen. This practice is reminiscent of the Ivermectin craze, which saw people buying the anti-parasite horse drug in huge quantities as an unproven treatment for Covid. Conspiracy theorists and QAnon adherents, who have been touting Ivermectin for months, jumped on the misoprostol video with angry responses, lamenting that it was suddenly socially acceptable to take “horse pills” (it’s not) while they had been lambasted for years for promoting alternative Covid treatments.

Roe is dominating conversation in the conspiracy realm, just as it is everywhere else. Conspiracy expert Mike Rothschild described how the leak “really stole the thunder” of every other theory going around over the past few weeks. Nobody’s talking about Ukrainian biolabs any more, he said. “Everything else that was dominating right wing conspiracy talk for the last few weeks has instantly been forgotten,” Rothschild told me, explaining that the left thinks the right leaked the Roe document, and the right thinks the left leaked it. The fact that it was leaked at all has immediately turned far-right conversation around it towards a “massive conspiracy theory.”

IN OTHER INFODEMIC NEWS 

I’m pleased to report that our Shanghai source, who told us last week of his harrowing escape from the locked-down megacity, is back home in Beijing. I asked his family if they were concerned about a looming lockdown in China’s capital, as train stations are shut down and mass isolation centers open up. They’re not even entertaining that thought right now. It’s difficult to imagine how the Chinese Communist Party will control Beijing’s population if it locks down the capital. 

On Weibo and WeChat, an extraordinary phone conversation between a CCP cadre and a frustrated Shanghaier has gone viral. “I’ve never seen Shanghai like this. Chinese people are easygoing to a fault, you could say. But when you mess with their food and basic survival, you’re crossing the line,” the resident says. “If you take away our rice bowls and starve us, we’ll revolt.” He adds: “This is science. It’s not a problem you can solve with grand ideology or a strong fighting spirit. It’s science! And what you’re all doing is pseudoscience.”

The disgraced French doctor, Didier Raoult, who notoriously touted and prescribed the unproven hydroxychloroquine as a treatment to Covid-19, has again come into the spotlight. France’s National Medicines Safety Agency (ANSM) found breaches in his clinical studies conducted prior to the pandemic. Raoult and his research institute have been accused of non-compliance with ethical rules during clinical trials. The agency also filed a legal complaint against Raoult’s institute, for illegally launching trials and submitting false documents. Last November Raoult underwent a disciplinary hearing and received a warning for promoting unproven treatments against Covid-19.

A Russian journalist has published a news item claiming he found a supposed “NATO biolab” in a destroyed building in Mariupol. On May 3, Semen Pegov, founder of “WarGonzo” Telegram channel and a war correspondent who is a regular guest on Russian state TV, shared a video with his more than a million subscribers. “Locals told me the lab was set on fire by the security services themselves on February 24, immediately after the special operation to denazify was announced,” he says while walking around the rooms and sifting through the rubble. “It is quite difficult to say exactly what kind of research was happening here, there is no official information. But the fact that Kyiv evacuated research and samples from here even before the storm of Mariupol, says a lot, if you ask me,” Pegov concludes. Claims that NATO labs are producing bioweapons labs have been one of the central narratives embraced and promulgated by Russia to justify its actions in Ukraine, and have been repeatedly proven to be false. 

WHAT WE’RE READING 

Last month, our partners at Reveal investigated the disinformation campaign behind a trusted “mom-friendly” pregnancy website, the American Pregnancy Association. Turns out the site is really the brainchild of a Texas anti-abortion activist, and is filled with innacurate information on abortion and reproductive health, hawking unproven blood tests, infertility treatments and pregnancy products.

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