Roe reversal puts spotlight on Meta’s abortion content moderation policies
It’s only been a few weeks since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling establishing a constitutional right to abortion — a reality many Americans are still trying to process. The decision is likely to transform the country’s political landscape for decades to come, and has already thrust the U.S. into uncharted legal territory. Since the court’s ruling, ten states have outlawed abortion altogether, and the procedure is now banned with no exceptions for rape or incest in at least five states. Meanwhile, a Missouri lawmaker is pushing to pass legislation deputizing private citizens to sue anyone who helps a Missouri resident get an abortion outside the state — a proposal eerily reminiscent of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.
The consequences of the ruling are rippling out well beyond the courts or state legislatures. It’s also raising urgent questions for some of the world’s largest social media platforms and technology companies. As we’ve previously reported, people’s digital footprints could be used to aid investigations of abortion seekers, and those who help them, in states that outlaw the procedure.
But users’ online data is just one piece of the puzzle. Social media companies are also facing heightened scrutiny over their abortion-related content moderation policies. In the days following the court’s ruling on Roe, reports emerged of Meta removing posts related to abortion pills and restricting searches for the hashtags “abortion pills” and the abortion medication “mifepristone.”
Meta spokesperson Andy Stone addressed reporting suggesting that Facebook removed posts about mailing abortion pills on June 27, tweeting that the company does not allow “content that attempts to buy, sell, trade, gift, request or donate pharmaceuticals,” but does allow content discussing the “affordability and accessibility” of prescription medication. However, he acknowledged that the company has “discovered some instances of incorrect enforcement and are correcting these.”
In a June 30 email to subscribers, the reproductive justice group Reproaction said the group has “seen and heard reports showing an increase in suppression of abortion-related content on Instagram” since the Supreme Court’s decision on June 24.
Jessica Ensley, the group’s digital outreach and opposition research director, told me this has included Instagram tagging content with the terms “abortion” and the abortion pills “mifepristone” and “misoprostol” with “sensitive content” labels and sometimes requiring users to verify their age before viewing images in posts and stories. For example, Ensley referred me to a June 27 post from the account “thesweetfeminist,” which has more than 250,000 followers on Instagram, featuring a photo of a pink cake with the words “pro abortion” scrawled across it in bubbly white frosting. Meta covered the post and labeled it as sensitive, explaining: “This post doesn’t go against our Community Standards, but may contain images that some people might find upsetting. We cover sensitive or potentially graphic content so people can choose whether to see it.”
Ensley added that accounts with far fewer followers also saw content tagged as sensitive and hidden after Roe was overturned. “Some of them are local organizations that are just trying to get information out to their community and they’re having a hard time,” she explained. “We are in a moment where factual information about abortion is desperately needed. And one of the ways that people can access information readily is through these social media platforms that are now acting like a black box.”
When I asked Meta for further explanation about why the cake post was covered and labeled as sensitive, the company pointed to a June 28 tweet from Instagram Communications saying that, in a bug, sensitivity screens had been added to “many different types of content,” including various posts unrelated to abortion. And, at least as of writing today, it does not look like abortion-related content from accounts that had previously had the screens added now have sensitivity warnings.
However, It’s worth noting that this discussion about platforms’ abortion-related content moderation policies predates June. Ensley and other reproductive rights activists say they have been battling abortion-related censorship and content suppression since well before the court’s decision to overturn Roe. Subscribers to this newsletter may remember my conversation in May with Venny Ala-Siurua, the executive director of the nonprofit Women on Web, which sends abortion pills to people in countries where the procedure is banned or highly restricted. Even then — a month before the Supreme Court overturned Roe — Ala-Siurua told me that the group gets “censored all the time” on social media. Since 2021, Women on Web’s Instagram account has been shut down at least four times, according to Martha Dimitratou, Women on Web’s digital strategist. Ensley, meanwhile, told me she began to first notice content restrictions on the group’s Meta platforms in September 2021, after Texas passed its sweeping anti-abortion “bounty” law, which allows private citizens to sue anyone who helps a person access an abortion. (Reproaction outlined its concerns in a petition published on the organization’s website, which you can read here.)
Meta did not address questions about the claims in Reproaction’s petition or Women on Web’s allegations of Instagram shutdowns. The company also did not answer a question about whether Meta had changed its abortion-related content moderation policies since the Supreme Court overturned Roe, and did not provide information about its content moderation policies involving posts that advocate for abortion access.
Yet even with the uncertainty about the future of abortion-related content on social networks, Ensley and Dimitratou say states’ dwindling abortion access has left people hungrier than ever for information about reproductive health services and abortion pills. Website traffic to both groups has surged, and “I have seen quite an increase in people sharing our information or tagging us in news stories and stuff like that,” Ensley said. “People want that information, which makes it all the more crucial that it be readily available to them.”
IN GLOBAL NEWS:
Russian propagandists have found a cunning and remarkably simple way around YouTube’s ban on Kremlin-backed media. You might remember that shortly after the February 24 invasion of Ukraine, YouTube blocked channels RT and Sputnik from the platform in Europe. The social media giant doubled down by blocking Russian state media altogether on March 11. But about a month later, RT videos started cropping up on YouTube, just on a new channel under a different name — Dig Deep Documentary. According to research by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, these are RT videos, just with the RT logo replaced with the Dig Deep Documentary one. An easy way to bypass the ban and it worked — at least for a while. The Dig Deep Documentary account appears to have been removed from YouTube, but it was up and running for over two months from mid-April to late June.
The Chinese Communist Party is “cultivating friendly forces” abroad to promote its Xinjiang policies to the wider world. That’s according to a new report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The study detailed how China is using handpicked individuals in the diaspora to uphold the Party narrative about its treatment of the Uyghur minority and is also systematically collecting information on Uyghurs abroad. We’ve covered China’s foreign influence and transnational repression programs extensively, if you want to know more — check out our work here.
Sudan’s internet went dark on June 30 ahead of a wave of anti-government demonstrations denouncing the country’s 2021 military coup. According to the cybersecurity company Surfshark, the June 30 outage made Sudan the 12th country in Africa over the last seven years to block internet access amid widespread protests. A recent report from the digital rights group Top10VPN found that internet shutdowns cost the global economy more than $10 billion in 2022 — the highest amount the group has ever recorded. The study found that Russia, which lost over $8 billion to internet restrictions in 2022, was the most economically impacted country in the world, followed by Myanmar, Kazakhstan, and Iran. Sudan was among the three nations hardest hit by internet outages in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to Top10VPN, with digital blackouts costing the country nearly $18 million in 2022. Check out more of our coverage on internet outages here.