Friday’s Supreme Court decision eliminating the constitutional right to abortion in the U.S. has sent the demand for prescribed pills that induce abortion skyrocketing. So it’s staggering that, at the very time women most need information about and access to these medications, Facebook and Instagram are making it hard for them to find it.
A report by NBC News on Monday found that a search of terms and the hashtags “abortion pills” and “mifepristone” (a popular abortion pill) got almost no new results. Following NBC News’ report, both hashtags were unblocked on Instagram. Caught up in this restriction was Abortion Finder, a reputable platform that shares information about abortion resources. The organization, which is also featured on a government website dedicated to informing people in the U.S. of their abortion rights, said its Instagram account was suspended Sunday (it has since been restored). Meanwhile, Motherboard, a tech website, reported that Facebook had also restricted posts about the pills.
It’s unconscionable that the social media platforms’ parent company, Meta, made it difficult to access vital health information so soon after the court’s decision.
With abortion rights now being decided at the state level, more women who can’t access the correct information about legal pills may pursue illegal abortions, which can be deadly. It’s unconscionable that the social media platforms’ parent company, Meta, made it difficult to access vital health information so soon after the court’s decision.
And the ease with which Meta seems to have simply flipped a switch to block information about abortion pills reminds us that the company can effectively cut off access to harmful postings if it wants to — like, for example, expressions of hate. Over 40% of Americans have been victims of online harassment, according to a 2021 Pew Research survey. So what seems to be missing here is the will to better protect users from abuse. (Meta, for its part, claims to work hard to remove such content.)
In response to critics who have pointed out the irony of the move to limit abortion information, Meta has said posts about abortion pills are being restricted on its platforms because of its “regulated goods” policy, which communications director Andy Stone tweeted about Monday: “Content that attempts to buy, sell, trade, gift, request or donate pharmaceuticals is not allowed. Content that discusses the affordability and accessibility of prescription medication is allowed. We’ve discovered some instances of incorrect enforcement and are correcting these.”
Of course, we don’t want dangerous, inaccurate information about abortions — under the guise of being helpful — to reach people who are desperately searching for resources. Still, the fact that a platform like Abortion Finder was essentially censored shows that we simply can’t trust social networks like Facebook and Instagram to moderate their platforms responsibly or deliver the information we need to know about the world.
That’s scary because nearly half of Americans “often” or “sometimes” turn to social media for their news, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey.
It’s time for us all to stop trusting social networks like Facebook and Instagram to determine what we do and do not know.
With that in mind, if we don’t take anything else away from Meta’s gaffe, it should be an important reminder to us all of how dangerous it is to rely solely on popular social networks for the information we need.
Let’s not forget that when we use social networks, they also track our searches and other behavior and are programmed to show us more of the kinds of content they think we like. Eli Pariser pointed this out in his book “The Filter Bubble: How the Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think.” After all, the more you enjoy your experience on these networks, the more time you’re likely to spend on them and the more money they can then make from advertisers. But that means they may not show us the information we need to be informed citizens and understand the world we live in — from stories about the atrocities happening in Ukraine to threats to abortion access.
To address this, we all need to turn to reliable mainstream media outlets more often, where we can’t help but see important stories on the front cover or the homepage. We also need new nonprofit social networks that focus on empowering users with their moderation decisions and not on generating profits.
It’s not a far-fetched idea. When it was revealed that billionaire Elon Musk was buying Twitter, Pariser tweeted: “Just saying…we don’t *have* to make our communications infrastructure a plaything for fickle, feckless billionaires. We could build public-service social platforms Elon could never buy. And I think we will.” I hope Pariser (or someone else) does. Such social networks could help cut off access to truly harmful information while amplifying information about important issues we need to know about in ways that Meta has clearly demonstrated it won’t.
While it’s outrageous that Meta immediately limited information that is so desperately needed, the decision is hardly an anomaly. The company is constantly deciding what its users see in their feeds — and it’s clear that its decisions don’t always serve our interests. More than ever, with a Supreme Court that is intent on ignoring the will of a majority of people in the U.S., we need to be more proactive about staying informed. It’s time for us all to stop trusting social networks like Facebook and Instagram to determine what we do and do not know.