Big Tech is Targeting Abortion

Women on Web and other similar organizations have always had censorship barriers to contend with and overcome. Nowadays, however, censorship practices have become far more insidious.

With a handful of privately-owned tech giants overseeing everything and revealing nothing, organizations such as Women on Web are at the mercy of gatekeepers that never have to divulge how or why an account gets blocked. For cases such as abortion, time-sensitive care has no choice but to wait.

In a 12-month span, our accounts have been disabled 7 times, all during a global public health crisis when remote services were needed most; all during a time when domestic violence has been on the rise and people in controlling and surveyed circumstances needed to access services privately and secretly; all during a time when the internet is relied upon more and more for information and services. We’ve been told twice that our disabled accounts were mistakes, other times given no reason at all; not whether it was due to content we posted, a complaint issued against us, an automated block triggered by something the algorithms pick up… nothing.

Never are we given information or instruction on how to better navigate community guidelines to avoid being blocked in the future. Instead, we’re expected to spend time and money we don’t have on figuring it out for ourselves, none of which guarantees it won’t happen again. All this to share scientifically proven medical information essential to keeping people from putting themselves at risk. All this to figure out ways to replace words like abortion and pregnancy because they might offend guidelines that are created by individuals who might be biased against them already.

From behind the wall of opacity, we are told repeatedly these platforms are neutral when it comes to issues such as abortion. But twice now in the last year, we’ve had accounts blocked curiously and dangerously close to abortion bans. In October 2020, our Polish Facebook and Instagram accounts were both blocked just before draconian legislative changes were introduced in Poland that practically banned abortion altogether. The recent change in Texas that has banned abortions after 6 weeks saw our main Instagram account and those of our allies disabled days before and after the bill came into effect. We also got word from some supporters that their own private accounts were at risk of being disabled for sharing links to our website.

The alignment of these censorships with legislative bans is clearly not coincidental. However, it might not be quite as bad if the information vacuum then created on these platforms wasn’t immediately occupied by anti-abortion groups and misinformation.

Why is it that services such as Women on Web face such difficulty making sure good quality and scientific information about abortion healthcare is available, while nothing seems to stand in the way of anti-abortion accounts spreading misinformation? Why is it that hashtags such #abortionismurder get lumped into the same frame as #abortionishealtchare? Why is it these groups can successfully spend advertising money to promote their lies that only keep people ashamed and at risk, and ours continually get refused? Why?

The long-term effects of disabling a few social media accounts for a few days might seem trivial but in fact, these actions perpetuate the stigma that keeps people unsafe and uninformed in the long run. By not actively providing some digital buoyancy to abortion care services and sinking the groups that supply misinformation to the masses, big tech is complicit in keeping abortion stigmatized and thus unsafe. These censorships stifle and directly impact our funding, meaning services that supplement healthcare access run the risk of being wiped out.

We’re now approaching International Safe Abortion Day, one of the biggest advocacy days of the year for abortion rights organizations: Are we going to be silenced as we champion the rights of women and pregnant people all over the world? Who knows. As with abortion, we have no control over who makes the choice for us.

Tune into our second Instagram Live discussion on digital rights on Thursday, September 16 at 1pm EST @abortionpil