The Supreme Court’s takedown of Roe v. Wade means that big tech must get a better hold on misinformation, experts say.
According to a May 2022 analysis from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, one in ten Google searches for abortion care—either for medical abortions or abortion pills—led to links to clinics that don’t provide that service in states that have already restricted or banned abortion. Last week’s ruling will only add to what has become a growing problem.
“I think it will get worse,” said Imran Ahmed, chief executive officer at the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which led the study. Ahmed is calling on platforms to dedicate resources to combat misinformation he said is common. “Their systems are being abused by bad actors.”
When conducting Google searches for abortion care in certain locations, the analysis found that results may yield clinics masquerading as healthcare facilities, but not actually licensed. Upon visiting that clinic’s website, users are led to information that is either misleading from their initial search for an abortion or outright false.
“I can say very confidently, and certainly that it is worse at this moment than it has been in [the] past,” said Jenna Sherman, a program manager at Meedan’s digital health lab, a non-profit specializing in combating misinformation.
Sherman said as internet searches for abortion care increase, those searches are “highly likely to have unreliable information.”
After the Supreme Court’s draft opinion was leaked and widely reported, Ahmed and his team began conducting searches for abortion care in states with trigger bans. In some searches, results turned up clinics that offer free pregnancy tests or ultrasounds, but do not refer to abortion services.
Many of the so-called “fake clinics” follow a similar playbook, Ahmed said.
“Women are looking for information on the access to abortion or to their sexual reproductive rights are hijacked by centers, which ostensibly look like they provide health care information on sexual reproductive rights, but actually do not,” Ahmed said. The clinics then “seek through a mix of misinformation to mislead women, about their about both their rights and their health care.”
These clinics do not appear in all searches, however. Depending on a user’s location, search history or availability of nearby resources, the results could vary. Google has previously said it anonymizes health data searches, but that does not necessarily treat them differently from other searches.
Could COVID-19 searches serve as a guidebook?
Ahmed and Sherman say Google and other platforms should establish guides on information related to sexual and reproductive care similar to how the company responded to COVID-19.
“I think we’re reaching that time,” Sherman said. “Platforms are not very good at moderating abortion misinformation, or really any type of gendered health information, but abortion is something that the alarm has been raised on for a long time and has pretty routinely not been acted upon.”
However, Sherman admits finding the right balance can be tricky. Medically, it is more nuanced and personal. Further, polarization around abortion care is heightened.
Dr. Mary Jacobson, chief medical officer of Alpha Medical, a provider of women’s health services, but not abortions, said misinformation in this area is widespread, but encouraged seekers to reach and consult trusted medical providers—not necessarily the first item in a web search.
“Emergency contraception—the morning after pill—is not an abortifacient,” Jacobson said. “Intrauterine devices are not an abortifacient, neither are any of the hormonal contraceptives. There’s a lot of disinformation out there to the contrary.”
Jacobson said abortions taking place early in pregnancy are generally safe. “Listen to experts in the field and follow the science, not disinformation,” she said.
Experts say that accessing proper information in a post-Roe world will require additional effort from tech companies. While Ahmed is hesitant to say Google and other tech giants will take meaningful actions to solve the problem, he is encouraged by recent inquiry letters sent from legislators about the information presented to abortion seekers.
A Google spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.