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Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, online researchers say disinformation about abortion has flooded websites and social media, and some of that disinformation is influencing policy. Misleading and medically inaccurate information even found its way into the Dobbs decision. Jenna Sherman, program manager and researcher at Meedan Digital Health Lab, joins Nick Schifrin to discuss.
Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, online researchers say disinformation about abortion has flooded websites and social media and some of that disinformation is influencing policy. Misleading and medically inaccurate information even found its way into the Dobbs decision.
This week, I spoke to Jenna Sherman, program manager and researcher at Meedan Digital Health Lab, a technology nonprofit that works to strengthen journalism and digital literacy.
Jenna Sherman, welcome to "PBS News Weekend." What was the state of disinformation about abortion before the doctor's decision?
Jenna Sherman, Meedan Digital Health Lab:
So before the Dobbs decision, what we were seeing online was an overwhelming amount of myths and disinformation stemming from anti-abortion movements. This myths and disinformation was primarily really defensive as they were trying to make their point for why abortion is unethical and immoral and also dangerous.
So a lot of the focus was on drumming up broader support for their movement while trying to dissuade individual people from actually getting an abortion. So one of the main sticking points for them before the Dobbs decision was centered around abortion reversal pills, which have not been proven to be safe or effective in clinical trials. And in fact, were stopped in clinical trials because of dangerous hemorrhaging.
And how has it changed since the Dobbs decision?
So just in the past couple of weeks, we've seen the anti-abortion myths and disinformation grow much more vitriolic. It's become a lot, a lot more targeted, and angry at people who might still be considering getting an abortion or might still have access to one.
So, some of the angles that are primarily being used now are targeting chemical abortion as they're calling it, which is actually another phrase for medication, abortion, trying to convince people that it is unsafe, which is not true.
And another main point that they're sticking on is really pushing against what they're calling abortion tourism, which is a really flippant and pejorative way to describe somebody who has no other choice, but to give up a lot of money, time and resources to access care that they need outside of state.
Is there — also disinformation as far as you can tell spread by those who advocate for federally protected abortion rights?
Since the decision, pro-choice activists and people who believe in the right to federally protected abortion have turned to social media to try and spread tips for people on how to access abortion safely when in reality, it's not actually always safe methods that they're promoting.
So, one of the big narratives circulating right now from the pro-choice individuals is that there are herbal remedies and natural foods that can induce an abortion. This is also not scientifically proven or safe and can lead to really severe health consequences depending on the herb or food, like septic shock or liver damage.
You mentioned this at the top but what disinformation ended up inside the Dobbs decision?
So there are claims in the Dobbs decision that abortion is a barbaric practice, that abortion is bad for maternal health, that abortion is dangerous, that fetuses can feel pain before the third trimester, and the abortion promotes discrimination. All of these are untrue, and are the same narratives being spouted by anti-abortion individuals and larger movements online.
Some of those are certainly false. But some of those could be considered subjective, right, by people who are against federally protected abortion rights.
So those that I just listed are all objectively false. We know that maternal health is protected and many ways by access to abortion, for instance. And this is backed by a number of medical and public health organizations, including the CDC.
There are of course, opinions in the Dobbs decision throughout that are subjective, and that really depend on the logic that you are taking and your value system underlying.
And finally, as best you can tell our social media company. So are technology companies doing enough to combat this information?
The short answer is absolutely not. We've seen how they were able to mobilize for COVID and while health misinformation policies among platforms are still relatively new, mostly the past five or six years. We have not seen them take action sufficiently in regards to other health topics and this is a really urgent need right now because so many more people are turning to the internet to find information about abortion and so many people are coming across it unwillingly because it is being so highly discussed online right now.
Jenna Sherman, thank you very much.
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Andrew Corkery is a national affairs producer at PBS News Weekend.
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