In a year of very visible attacks on churches, medical offices, crisis pregnancy centers, and even homes of Republican politicians over abortion, there’s been another battle—an invisible one—on social media.
Major platforms were already banning pro-life organizations (or at least their ads) and individuals before the U.S. Supreme Court decided last year to dismantle Roe v. Wade. Starting in June 2022, pro-abortion groups doubled down on pressuring social platforms to de-list crisis pregnancy centers or CPCs (clinics that provide sonograms, pregnancy testing, and other services but not abortions) on the grounds that they were deceptive.
“The GOP are insisting that the fake clinics operate as they are,” said Callum Hood, the research director for the Center for Countering Digital Hate. “We’re not asking for them to be removed; we just want to see them labeled correctly [as] to whether or not they handle abortion. It is not about censorship, it’s about more transparency.”
Another tactic was to just squelch the debate. Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life, was speaking at the University of Texas campus in San Antonio about a year ago when a red-haired student in a short midriff-baring white shirt and brown athletic pants confronted her. The student said her name was Darby, and she was holding a poster.
“So, my poster reads,” the student said, “‘Life begins when you understand living women matter more than potential babies.’”
The last half of that sentence ended with a baleful stare at Hawkins, who was standing behind a podium sporting a grey sign with white letters: “The Future is Anti-Abortion.” Cheers erupted from other students sitting nearby.
“What is it?” Hawkins asked, referring to the poster. “What do you mean?” asked the student.
“If it’s a ‘potential baby,’ what is inside of a woman?” “It’s a fetus,” Darby responded.
“Is it living?” Hawkins wanted to know. “No!” yelled several students.
“How can it grow if it’s not living?” Hawkins persisted. “Actually, that is like saying if an acorn is a tree,” Darby replied. “When does the fetus become living?”
“Um, that’s actually a good question.” As several people tried to shout her down, Hawkins pressed the young woman on the matter.
Two days after the three-minute, thirty-two-second exchange hit TikTok,1 the platform banned both the exchange and Students for Life itself.2 It took Students for Life two weeks to get back on the platform, although it normally only takes a few hours to have one’s account restored, according to Students for Life spokeswoman Caroline Wharton.
“They never gave us an explanation,” she wrote in an email. “By the time we got back onto TikTok, dozens of other accounts had gone viral for reposting our clip. We unfortunately got none of the traction or credit because TikTok had our account removed during the time that video was circulating.” Students for Life reports that they have had other videos banned by TikTok and Instagram. Occasionally, if SFL protests, the videos are reinstated. Other times, not. The abortion battle in social media has attracted less attention than other aspects of the fight, but here are some of the highlights:
• Live Action, an anti-abortion group that specializes in outreach to young people, saw the account of its founder, Catholic activist Lila Rose, banned from TikTok, and Live Action itself was banned from running ads. The media platform told Rose that her organization was guilty of “partisan political motives,” Live Action recounted in a press release,3 while at the same time TikTok allows Planned Parenthood to advertise. TikTok did not respond to my request for comment.
• During May and June of 2022, abortion rights groups dominated ad buys on Facebook and Instagram, according to Axios.4 Advertising has been critical for both pro and anti-abortion forces, with both sides seeking to shore up support, influence state legislatures to pass restrictive—or unrestrictive—laws on abortion access, and raise money for their cause. What Axios didn’t mention was whether anti-abortion groups may have wanted to advertise as well, but were blocked from doing so.
• Gen-Z for Change, formerly known as TikTokforBiden, is a group that prides itself on spamming and trolling pro-life groups. Among their claims: “Flooded and took down a Texas anti-abortion tip line with over 30K fake submissions.” Care Net, a CPC network with 1,200 affiliates, was especially hard hit, with a tsunami of fake negative reviews, spammed online appointments, and false online reviews. It got so bad that Google and Yelp disabled the reviews on CPC sites. Gen-Z for Change has been lauded for their efforts, and in March 2022, members of the group were among the 30 TikTok stars briefed by the White House on the war in Ukraine. Prolifers aren’t their only targets; the group sent 140,000 false job applications to Starbucks locations5 after the famed coffee company tried to hire non-unionized staff. The following month, it used the same tactic (40,000 false job applications) against three Kroger grocery stores that were also hiring during a strike.6
• The day after Roe v. Wade was overturned, Facebook labeled “Jane’s Revenge,” an anonymous militant group that has claimed responsibility for vandalizing and firebombing CPCs across the country, as a terrorist organization. Abortion rights activists chafed at the label,7 saying the designation made any posts about Jane’s Revenge subject to censorship and threatened freedom of expression.
• Heartbeat International, a worldwide network of 3,000 crisis pregnancy centers, says Google has refused to allow it to advertise a technique known as abortion pill reversal, claiming that the organization’s ad contained “harmful health claims.” In abortion pill reversal, a woman who has begun the first phase of a chemical abortion—a dosage of the drug mifepristone—reverses the procedure by taking doses of progesterone. Several Catholic doctors who have pioneered this method8 say it works two out of three times. (The remaining one-third of those attempting it miscarry.) Despite a protest letter initiated by GOP senators Steve Daines and Josh Hawley and signed by 12 members of Congress that accused Google of suppressing information that might save an unborn child, the tech giant has not relented. TikTok will also not allow ads for the procedure, on the grounds that they “don’t comply with our advertising policies,” Heartbeat was told. Neither will Snapchat, claiming they violate community standards.
A second front in the social media war pitted opposing parties in Congress in a shouting match of conflicting press releases. Democratic politicians led by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) began pressuring Google to fine-tune its search results for abortion clinics so that women wouldn’t end up at a CPC. In a June 17 press release, the lawmakers claimed that 37 percent of all Google Map results for an abortion clinic in states with “trigger laws” to end abortion access turned up a CPC instead.9 Moreover, 11 percent of Google search results for “abortion clinic near me” and “abortion pill” in states most in danger of abortion being banned were for CPCs, and 28 percent of Google ads displayed at the top of search results were for clinics that had no intention of providing abortions.
Apparently too many women using search engines were ending up at CPCs that looked and sounded like abortion clinics.
Those results came from a 10-page June 9 report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate. That organization has also tackled ads for abortion services. In September, it published research concluding that Google was not doing enough to label which businesses were abortion clinics and which were CPCs.
In an interview, Hood (the research director at the Center for Countering Digital Hate) said that people searching for abortion key words such as “Carafem” or “Plan C” or “Planned Parenthood” have ended up viewing ads for CPCs. Hood said that Google promised in 2019 to make sure advertisers provided accurate abortion information. “Before someone can advertise on this highly sensitive topic, Google said it would certify whether or not they offer abortion,” he stated. “In September, we discovered they were not enforcing their 2019 policy to label all ads as to whether or not the advertiser provides abortion. This is not a massive ask—it’s basic health care and safety of people seeking abortions.”
And the controversy over Google Maps continues. A month after the Democrats’ press release, Republican attorneys general from 17 states also wrote Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet and its subsidiary Google, calling the Democrats’ threat a “gallingly un-American political pressure.”
“If you fail to resist this political pressure, we will act swiftly to protect American consumers from this dangerous axis of corporate and government power,” they wrote.
Whatever Google did, it wasn’t enough, according to a Bloomberg report released in January that maintained that one-quarter of all searches on Google Maps for “abortion clinic” still led to a CPC. Google did not respond to a request for comment.
However, some Google searches for CPCs draw unwanted attention the CPCs would prefer to do without. After a CPC in Madison, Wisconsin, was vandalized and set on fire on May 8, 2022, James Harden, president of CompassCare, a network of pregnancy-help centers headquartered in Buffalo, New York, knew he could be next. First, he disclosed, the search engine Google de-listed his organization, declaring it closed on May 16. Then the militant pro-abortion group “Jane’s Revenge” torched his clinic the first week of June. “We were re-listed one hour before the firebombing on June 7,” he said. “When the first firebombing happened in Wisconsin, Jane’s Revenge put out a notice giving CPCs a month to shut down. June 7 was a month later.”
The attacks haven’t stopped. During the early morning hours of March 12 this year, the organization was vandalized again, with antifa-style (large red spray-painted letters) graffiti on their exterior sign.
Meanwhile, other fronts in the social media battle have opened up. In November, the Associated Press unveiled a new policy toward crisis pregnancy centers, telling reporters not to refer to them as such nor as “pregnancy resource centers” but instead as “anti-abortion centers.” The AP sets style standards for American journalists, so most media will no doubt follow its dictates. The AP’s Abortion Topical Guide states that reporters should “avoid potentially misleading terms such as pregnancy resource centers or pregnancy counseling centers,” because “these terms don’t convey that the centers’ general aim is to prevent abortions.” (Why AP didn’t list the far more common term “crisis pregnancy centers” is unknown.)
The terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” have long been frowned upon by AP, despite the industry’s policy to allow groups to choose their own names. The recommended terms are “anti-abortion” and “abortion rights,” despite the “anti” wording having a far more negative cast to it than the “rights” term. The new rules also reframe the first trimester of pregnancy. The AP recommends that reporters not use the term “fetal heartbeat” but rather “cardiac activity.” Their reasoning? The heart under discussion supposedly isn’t one yet because the embryo has only the rudimentary beginnings of a heart. Pro-life leaders excoriated AP for its cluelessness on the basics of pregnancy. Dr. Christina Francis, CEO-Elect for the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians & Gynecologists, was one of them. “By six weeks’ gestation, the human embryo has developed an organ that contracts rhythmically to pump blood through its body, aiding in the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood—in other words, a heart,” she told Fox News.10 While the Associated Press continues to shade the issue, and major social media platforms continue to block it, a series of revelations last December disclosed a deliberate campaign on the part of Twitter to promote certain views and those expressing them and demote certain other ones. The topic hit like a bomb in mid-December when former New York Times journalist Bari Weiss11—who now runs a successful substack known as The Free Press—published what’s been known as the “Twitter Files.”
As she related in a Dec. 15 Twitter post and column: “At dinner time on December 2, I received a text from Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, founder of SpaceX, founder of the Boring Company, founder of Neuralink, on most days the richest man in the world (possibly history), and, as of October, the owner of Twitter.12 Was I interested in looking at Twitter’s archives, he asked. And how soon could I get to Twitter HQ? Two hours later, I was on a flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco with my wife, Free Press writer Nellie Bowles, and our three-month-old baby.”
With the help of seven other reporters, her team culled through a myriad of information points (posts, emails, files, interior Slack discussions) to discover that Twitter had been repressing certain points of view and certain users and censoring reporting on certain un-woke-friendly topics (Hunter Biden’s laptop, why Covid lockdowns harm children, etc.). Twitter employee teams built blacklists, prevented disfavored tweets from trending, and limited the visibility of controversial people—without informing them, she wrote.
What took place wasn’t so much the shutting down of certain unpopular (to Twitter employees) accounts, but what’s known as “visibility filtering” or locking users out of searches for certain topics or preventing other users’ tweets from trending. (Some call that viewpoint discrimination.) Weiss’s reporters found that some people’s accounts had a “do not amplify” warning on them. Others such as Libs of TikTok—which questions gender transition procedures—were outright suspended because, according to an inside memo obtained by the Weiss team, Libs of TikTok “has continued targeting individuals/allies/supporters of the LGBTQIA community for alleged misconduct.” This sort of banning had long been familiar to prolifers. Lila Rose was talking about it as far back as 2018.
“Twitter’s actions suggest it’s OK for Planned Parenthood to tweet that a woman has a right to an abortion,” she wrote in an editorial13 for USA Today, “but when I tweet and try to promote that a baby has a right to life, Twitter considers that inflammatory.”
Defenders of Twitter say the social platform was reacting to Russian attempts to flood social platforms with false information to sway the 2016 election. Social media sites began banning anything they considered false or disruptive information, which—in the minds of those who monitored them—included a lot of material posted by prolifers.
Although news of the “Twitter files” was played down in much of the mainstream media, many people took notice. In January, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and other anti-vaccine activists with Children’s Health Defense filed an anti-trust lawsuit against several top media organizations alleging that—in the name of quashing vaccine misinformation—the BBC and others censored valuable content about Covid-19 vaccines, the origins of Covid, and more.14 On March 24, Kennedy and Children’s Health sued the Biden administration, saying it encouraged social media companies to suppress speech that the government does not want the public to hear and to silence specific speakers who are critical of federal policy.
Perhaps the most damning show of the influence of political and liberal cultural influences on Twitter also occurred this past March, when the House Judiciary Committee held hearings on the “Twitter files”and their exposure of social media platforms’ unequal treatment of opinions and those expressing them, featuring journalists Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger. Taibbi was not a member of the group Weiss brought in, nor was Shellenberger, but along with Weiss and several others, they received from Musk internal Twitter documents whose publication as Twitter threads they and Weiss coordinated. Taibbi’s opening statement accused government agencies ranging from the FBI to the CIA and Department of Defense of pressuring Twitter to delete and de-platform people with unpopular opinions.
“We learned Twitter, Facebook, Google, and other companies developed a formal system for taking in moderation ‘requests’ from every corner of government: the FBI, DHS, HHS, DOD, the Global Engagement Center at State, even the CIA,” he said. “For every government agency scanning Twitter, there were perhaps 20 quasi-private entities doing the same, including Stanford’s Election Integrity Project, Newsguard, the Global Disinformation Index, and others, many taxpayer-funded.”
Taibbi continued: “A focus of this fast-growing network is making lists of people whose opinions, beliefs, associations, or sympathies are deemed ‘misinformation,’ ‘disinformation,’ or ‘mal-information.’ The latter term is just a euphemism for ‘true but inconvenient.’”15
Meanwhile, if he or Shellenberger or the team Weiss brought in at Elon Musk’s invitation have unearthed proof of institutional animus toward the pro-life movement via actual memos, emails, and the like by Twitter higherups, they have not publicized them. But the bias was there; anything opposing abortion was going to get censored on certain social platforms. That was nothing new. The outreach of Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, allowed Weiss and the other journalists to see how other topics were getting blacklisted—an indication that prolifer claims of bias were right all along.
1. You can watch the whole exchange here: https://www.tiktok.com/@studentsforlife/ video/7089110774064418091?_r=1&_t=8Ymio4s50nO.
2. From an April 27, 2022, Students for Life blog post “SFLA condemns TikTok for censoring pro-life speech through banning their account without warning.” https://studentsforlife.org/2022/04/27/sflacondemns-tik-tok-for-censoring-pro-life-speech-through-banning-their-account-without-warning/
3. From an August 4, 2022, analysis on Live Action’s web page: “More Big Tech censorship: TikTok blocks Live Action founder’s account.” https://www.liveaction.org/news/big-tech-censorship-tiktokblocks-live-action/
4. “Abortion rights ads swamp social media,” by Lachlan Markay, Axios, June 28, 2022.
5. “Gen Z TikTok creators are turning against Amazon,” by Taylor Lorenz and Caroline O’Donovan, the Washington Post, Aug. 17, 2022.
6. Gen-Z has a link on its page to this Wired story describing its trolling efforts: https://www.wired.com/story/tiktok-army-union-busters-amazon/
7. “Facebook labels abortion rights vandals terrorists following Roe reversal,” by Sam Biddle, The Intercept, June 28, 2022.
8. “Catholics at the forefront of controversial abortion pill reversal method,” by Julia Duin, Newsweek, Jan. 21, 2022.
9. “Warner, Slotkin, Colleagues Urge Action on Misleading Search Results About Abortion Clinics,”
issued June 17, 2022, by Sen. Mark Warner’s office.
10. “Pro-lifers outraged as Associated Press rejects ‘fetal heartbeat,’ ‘late-term abortion’ as valid terms,” by Scott Whitlock, Fox News, Dec. 8, 2022.
11. For a helpful, recent history of Weiss, read “How Bari Weiss Broke the Media,” by Harry Lambert in the Feb. 23, 2023, issue of The New Statesman.
12. “Our Reporting at Twitter,” by Bari Weiss, Dec. 15, 2022, obtained from https://www.thefp.com/p/ why-we-went-to-twitter.
13. “Twitter feigns political neutrality, but my pro-life organization sees the bias firsthand,” by Lila Rose in the Sept. 16, 2018, issue of USA Today.
14. “RFK Jr Sues BBC and Other Media Outlets over Covid ‘Censorship,’” by Carlie Porterfield, Jan. 13, 2023, in Forbes.com. See https://www.forbes.com/sites/carlieporterfield/2023/01/13/rfk-jr-suesbbc-and-other-media-outlets-over-covid-censorship/?sh=20400c0e1508.
15. Be sure to read Taibbi’s opening statement at https://www.racket.news/p/my-statement-tocongress.
Julia Duin has worked as an editor or reporter for six media outlets, most lately as Newsweek’s contributing editor for religion. She has published seven books, and has master’s degrees in journalism and religion. Her latest book, Finding Joy: A Mongolian Woman’s Journey to Christ, tells the story of Yanjmas Jutmaan, Mongolian activist for women’s rights, a counselor, and statistics expert. Julia lives in the Seattle area.