Abortion misinformation, post-Roe tactics: Weaponizing medical lies

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Old abortion misinformation and post-Roe tactics: Weaponizing TikTok and social media with medical lies

Thousands of people have seen and liked the video: inspirational tales of women who reversed their own medication abortions. As music swells, a parade of toddlers’ grinning, goofy, gaptoothed faces pass by — each, the content creators claim, saved from abortion.

There is no medical evidence that abortion pill reversal is possible. But the video is an example of the kind of gripping, well-crafted and emotionally compelling social media content that greets a pregnant person searching online for information about abortion practices, procedures or safety.

With glossy infographics, Gen Z-styled TikTok memes and emotional video, viral posts claim that there are safe ways to “reverse” an abortion, or that surgical abortion causes cancer, or abortion pills cause infertility. All are lies.

That thicket of disinformation — planted, grown and tended over the years by anti-abortion activists — has helped block countless women from obtaining timely, accurate information on terminating a pregnancy. In the wake of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the historic Supreme Court ruling overturning a 50-year legal precedent granting safe, legal access to abortion services, that thicket is getting worse.

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Jenna Sherman is a public health researcher focusing on reproductive health information at Meedan, a nonprofit tech platform that targets misinformation. She said people searching for abortion information online face a barrage of false content, including purposefully false information intended to deter people from accessing abortion care.

The Dobbs decision represents a victory for those who pushed health disinformation, Sherman said. It follows a decadeslong campaign by abortion opponents to connect abortion care with bad health outcomes in Americans’ minds.

“It went from a very intentional agenda to more of a really commonplace spread of narratives that we saw leading up to the decision, and which I think very much contributed to the decision actually passing,” she said, “because there was so much bad information that people are actually buying into and beliefs that seep into the public.”

Sherman has extensively researched the way online tools, including social media ads and search engine results, shape people’s understanding of their reproductive choices. She said that abortion misinformation typically falls into one of three categories. People are exposed, online and off, to false information about the procedure’s safety, its efficacy and its long-lasting psychological effects.

And that information landscape is about to shift abruptly in the wake of the Dobbs decision, which sends abortion access back to the states — many of which will immediately ban the procedure.

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People in those states will remain most vulnerable to misinformation, she added. Research shows that online searches for abortion information skyrocket in states that limit access, and a report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that 1 in 10 Google search results for abortion services in “trigger law” states will lead to partisan, anti-abortion information, she said.

“Just as people of color and poor people are more likely to be negatively impacted by the overturn of Roe and a lack of abortion access, they’re also most likely to be negatively impacted by the mis- and disinformation online because in states that have the highest restrictions, that’s where people have the highest searches for that content,” Sherman said.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Editor’s Note: As a practice, Grid generally avoids sharing or linking to misinformation. In this case, we decided it was in the readers’ interest to see examples of the narratives spread on social media referred to in this interview.

Grid: Why is misinformation around abortion so particularly concerning?

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Jenna Sherman: Studies have shown that people who encounter abortion myths and disinformation narratives are more hindered in their ability to actually get an abortion. They have more hesitations. They feel less empowered to actually get an abortion; they are more torn with regards to guilt and shame. All of those things can hinder someone’s ability to actually self-refer to an abortion, even if that’s something that they wanted, or want or need. So those have been pretty effective, too.

Certain groups and certain movements are really good at being strategic and centralizing their narratives that are not factual and pushing them out, both in traditional media and in online media, and not being called out for it because, you know, it’s seen as a political issue that is being censored. And that’s one of my big challenges. Of course, it’s a political issue, but it shouldn’t be seen that way. When somebody says, for instance, “Banning abortion is improving maternal and child health” — that is just false. That’s against science.

G: How effective do you think misinformation narratives have been in suppressing support for abortion access or suppressing access?

JS: I believe them to be very effective. Research shows that mis- and disinformation can actually change the behavior of people, and while it’s pretty under-researched in the health realm, what we know about social and behavioral science tells us that people are pretty influenced by what they see online, especially repeat narratives.


We’re really used to hearing these abortion mis- and disinformation narratives. We’re used to hearing that abortion can cause breast cancer or abortion can cause infertility. So when we see those narratives, our brains are less likely to have alarm bells go off because we’ve seen them before. And then that makes the narratives more effective, too. It makes people also more likely to share the information in addition to believing it because, again, it’s something that they’ve seen before, which makes [the information] feel like a trusted source.

That can pretty significantly codify beliefs that they have or that they maybe had a seedling of, and that grows and grows. That’s pushed by algorithms, that’s pushed intentionally by groups and that also is spread by the misinformation that seeps down from disinformation. Anti-abortion groups have been really, really good at making that happen.

G: Where are these narratives showing up online?

JS: It’s really across every single platform. I do a lot of my research on TikTok, and I think one of the reasons there’s a lot of this vitriolic mis- and disinformation on TikTok is because a lot of the TikTok users are younger; there’s a lot of Gen Zers who are more pro-abortion. So that’s a big battleground for the two sides to play it out.

Also, there’s a lot of this content on Twitter. I think that it plays out a little bit differently. Twitter’s more in professional spaces, so people like politicians and movement leaders on the anti-abortion side are putting out a lot of content about abortion pill reversal and things such as that coming from more of a seemingly legitimate standpoint, where they’re having pretty fierce debates that are rife with mis- and disinformation with their opponents on Twitter.

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Instagram is a lot more activist-oriented, so it’s where people are sharing their infographics on all sides and trying to put out information about either how to celebrate the overturn and push it even further and implement the best trigger laws or how to really fight back.

G: Before the Supreme Court decision on June 24 struck down Roe v. Wade, what did online abortion misinformation look like?

JS: I’ve been working on this topic for a couple of years, and abortion mis- and disinformation was always there and always pretty highly prevalent online. I like to think about abortion misinformation being in three categories. One is procedures, one is risks, and one is stigma.

So, some of the procedure misinformation before the ruling was about medical abortion — which is the type of abortion that uses medication; it’s also called medication abortion or chemical abortion — and that it’s riskier than surgical abortion, which isn’t true. Also, that abortion pills are unsafe generally, or that abortion pill reversal works.

Also, under the risks: a lot of claims like abortion can cause cancer and infertility; abortions are never medically justified; late-term abortions are never safe.

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nd then for stigma, it’s anything that either is stigmatizing itself or is about information regarding stigma. So for that first category: “People who get abortions are murderers.” And for the second category, it’s like, “Partners won’t want to be intimate with you if you’ve had an abortion.” So it could be either stigmatizing itself or about abortion.

In a way you can hear that some of them are very defensive already, like [the narrative that] there’s an abortion pill reversal that’s safe and effective. That is very much trying to sway people’s minds after already having decided to get an abortion, for instance. So the folks who were pushing these narratives were kind of more on the defense, trying to say, “There’s things you can do to stop it; you’re going to feel horrible and guilty; you’re going to have a really bad health outcome.”

It was a little bit more of a defensive framing, but still really high quantities of misinformation and still a lot of disinformation that became misinformation because of how ubiquitous those narratives became on the internet, in our media and among our politicians, et cetera.

G: How have those narratives changed or shifted in the days since the ruling in Dobbs came down?

JS: It’s kind of getting ahead of the narratives, where people who are more in favor of abortion are going to be pushing back — offensively anticipating those narratives.

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The disinformation narratives are in a little bit of a different style and a little bit more of a victorious way. There’s a lot about abortion pills now, because that’s becoming more of the main way that people access abortions and actually end up getting an abortion. Anti-abortion individuals who are the biggest perpetrators of abortion mis- and disinformation online know that more and more people are going to be turning to medical abortion or medication abortion, so there’s a lot more mis- and disinformation around abortion pills and abortion pill reversal. A lot of scare tactics around abortion pills, around hemorrhaging and infertility.

There’s also the narrative being pushed even more now, that abortion pill reversal is safe and effective for people who have taken abortion pills. And as we know, abortion pill reversals are not safe or effective. They have not been proven to be either and, in fact, have been shown to be unsafe. They were stopped in clinical trials because of hemorrhaging. But that’s a big one being spread online now.

And a lot in the stigma category, I think, because there’s a lot of people who feel really emboldened now that the law is on their side, [there’s] a lot of stigmatization of people who chose to get abortion or who are choosing to get abortion. There are narratives that those people are murderers, that they’re aborting babies so that their organs and cells can be harvested. We’re seeing a lot more vitriol, whereas I think before, that defensive narrative was trying to draw people in more.

Before the decision, they were trying to kind of coax people into not getting an abortion, and now it’s a much more overt, vitriolic approach — “If you get an abortion, you’re a murderer.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Anya van Wagtendonk
    Anya van Wagtendonk

    Misinformation Reporter

    Anya van Wagtendonk is the misinformation reporter at Grid, focusing on the impact of false information on policy, elections and social behavior.

  • Morgan Richardson
    Morgan Richardson

    Assistant Editor

    Morgan Richardson is an assistant editor for Grid working with our editorial, graphics, video and podcast teams.