Friday’s Supreme Court decision to repeal the constitutional right to abortion in the US has boosted demand for prescription pills leading to skyrocketing abortion?† So it’s staggering that, just when women most need information about and access to these drugs, Facebook and Instagram are making it hard for them to find it.
A report from NBC News on Monday found that a search for terms and the hashtags “abortion pills” and “mifepristone” (a popular abortion pill) turned up almost no new results. Following the NBC News report, both hashtags were unblocked on Instagram. Entangled in this restriction was Abortion Finder, a reputable platform that shares information about abortion resources. The organization, which can also be seen on a government website dedicated to educating people in the US about their abortion rights, said her Instagram account was suspended on Sunday (it has since been reinstated). In the meantime, Motherboarda tech website, reported that Facebook had also restricted posts about the pills.
It is unreasonable that the parent company of the social media platforms, Meta, made it difficult to access vital health information so soon after the court ruling.
With abortion rights being decided at the state level, more women who don’t have access to the right information about legal pills can pursue illegal abortions, which can be deadly† It is unreasonable that the parent company of the social media platforms, Meta, made it difficult to access vital health information so soon after the court ruling.
And the ease with which Meta appears to have simply flipped a switch to block information about abortion pills reminds us that the company can effectively cut off access to harmful messages if it wants to, such as hate speech. More than 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 shall to better protect users from abuse. (Meta, for his part, claims to work hard to remove such content†
Responding to critics who have pointed to the irony of the move to restrict abortion information, Meta has said that posts about abortion pills on its platforms are being curtailed because of its “regulated goods” policy. communications director Andy Stone tweeted on Monday: “Content attempting to buy, sell, trade, gift, solicit or donate medicines is not allowed. Content that discusses affordability and accessibility of prescription drugs is allowed. We have identified some cases of incorrect enforcement and are correcting them.”
Of course we don’t want dangerous, inaccurate information about abortions – under the guise of helpfulness – reaching people who are desperate for resources. Still, the fact that a platform like Abortion Finder was essentially censored shows that we simply cannot rely on social networks like Facebook and Instagram to responsibly moderate their platforms or provide 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 we all stopped relying on social networks like Facebook and Instagram to dictate what we do and don’t know.
With that in mind, if we don’t take anything else away from Meta’s blunder, it should be an important reminder to all of us 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 behaviors and are programmed to show us more of the kind 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 will spend on them and the more money they can make from advertisers. But that means they might not show us the information we need to be informed citizens and understand the world we live in – from stories of the atrocities in Ukraine to threats to abortion access.
To address this, we all need to turn to reliable mainstream media more often, where we can’t help but see important stories on the front page or the homepage. We also need new not-for-profit social networks that focus on empowering users in their moderation decisions, not generating profit.
It’s not a far-fetched idea. When it became known that billionaire Elon Musk bought Twitter, Pariser tweeted: “I’m just saying… we don’t have to make our communications infrastructure a plaything for fickle, gullible billionaires. We could build public social platforms that Elon could never buy. And I think we will.” I hope Pariser (or anyone else) does. Such social networks can help cut off access to really harmful information, while amplifying information about important things we need to know. in ways that Meta has clearly shown is not the case.
While it’s outrageous that Meta immediately restricted information so much needed, the decision is hardly an anomaly. The company constantly decides what its users see in their feeds – and it’s clear that those decisions don’t always serve our best interests. More than ever, with a Supreme Court ignoring the will of a majority of people in the US, we need to be more proactive about staying informed. It’s time we all stopped relying on social networks like Facebook and Instagram to dictate what we do and don’t know.