Misinformation dominates abortion news coverage on Facebook

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

When it comes to abortion-related coverage, right-wing media excels at monopolizing the conversation and inserting harmful or inaccurate talking points that spread anti-choice misinformation. Despite widespread cries of censorship by right-wing and anti-abortion outlets, a new Media Matters study found that in April, Facebook audience engagement with U.S. abortion news coverage from right-wing sources far outpaced the engagement with neutral or left-leaning sources.

Of the top-engaged U.S. abortion news coverage on the platform, over 63% of web links with the most Facebook interactions came from right-leaning websites, and 72% of the Facebook page posts with the most interactions were from right-leaning pages. LifeNews.com and Live Action, two of the larger anti-abortion media sites accounted for almost 30% of viral links. The two main Facebook pages affiliated with these sites also made up a quarter of the most popular Facebook posts. Facebook’s newsfeed ranking algorithm determines a post's visibility by accounting for interactions (likes, reactions, shares, and comments) which means that top performing anti-abortion content from these outlets -- that have a long history of spreading anti-choice misinformation -- or other right-leaning sources have the potential to permeate user's newsfeeds and reach followers’ extended networks.

Anti-abortion misinformation on the platform is not the only type of content that has critics concerned. Facebook has claimed several times, to mixed results, that the company is attempting to address its role in disseminating misinformation of various sorts. The platform has struggled to control the spread of conspiracy theories and white supremacy, and this misinformation problem also extends into content related to health and medicine. Facebook recently announced a plan to curb the spread of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and misinformation on Facebook and Instagram. Anti-abortion misinformation deserves the same effort from the platform -- particularly in light of the sheer volume of pseudoscience about abortion that is promoted using social media.

Even before April, sensationalized and inaccurate stories about Democrats supporting “infanticide” went viral on Facebook. This false narrative quickly spread beyond the right-wing media echo chamber, garnering enough outrage that President Donald Trump made the (inaccurate) allegations a key talking point during his State of the Union address as well as in subsequent campaign rally speeches across the country. This misinformation chain from right-leaning and anti-abortion sources to the president is unsurprising. Anti-abortion outlets and right-wing media often work in tandem to push sensationalized narratives, manufacturing the illusion of widespread interest in or support for otherwise insignificant or inaccurate stories. Considering Trump’s media diet (which relies heavily on Fox News programming), it is unsurprising to see talking points from right-leaning sources finding a home in his speeches. Given the attention from the president, and the ease with which this misinformation can be spread online, it is also unsurprising that the same inaccurate narratives were dominant in April.

Right-wing media have never been shy about promoting anti-abortion misinformation. And there’s been no shortage of topics for these sites to capitalize on because of the increasing push to pass anti-abortion legislation at the state level. Media Matters’ study found that beyond spreading misinformation, viral right-leaning abortion coverage also frequently advocated for anti-abortion legislation. Twenty-three percent of links from right-leaning websites reviewed by Media Matters promoted the idea of six-week bans on abortion. Most often, these links referred to six-week abortion bans as “heartbeat bills,” based on the scientifically unfounded claim that the fetal cardiac activity around this point signifies a viable pregnancy. Despite six weeks gestation being before most people know they’re pregnant and the lack of scientific support for such bills, several states have moved forward with these restrictions. While the phrase “six-week abortion ban” is more accurate, right-leaning media’s use of “heartbeat bill” has permeated broader coverage and caused other outlets to adopt the inaccurate and sensationalized framing even when criticizing these bills.

In contrast to the dominance of right-leaning sources on abortion-related news in April, a Media Matters analysis of data from the 24 hours (6:30 p.m. May 15 to 6:30 p.m. May 16) after Alabama’s passage of a near total abortion ban shows a different dynamic at play.

Using the same methodology as before, Media Matters collected and coded web links on Facebook and Facebook posts related to all U.S. abortion news published in the 24 hours following the passage of Alabama’s anti-abortion law. The results demonstrated a reversal in outlets that dominated the conversation: Of the 52 links related to abortion news that earned at least 10,000 or more Facebook interactions each, 45 (86.5%) came from left-leaning websites or websites without political alignment. These links earned over 3.1 million Facebook interactions (93% of all interactions from the top-engaged links about abortion coverage). Just seven top-engaged links came from right-leaning websites (13.5%), and they earned just under 239,000 interactions on Facebook (7.1%).

In addition, posts from left-leaning Facebook pages and pages without political alignment also fared better in the wake of Alabama’s near total abortion ban. Of the 110 Facebook page posts from the same 24-hour period -- each with at least 5,000 or more interactions -- 94 (85.5%) of all top-engaged abortion news posts came from pages without political alignment and left-leaning pages, with posts earning almost 1.3 million interactions total (84.3% of all interactions from top-engaged posts about abortion). In contrast, right-leaning pages only had 16 (14.5%) of the top-engaged Facebook posts, which earned just over 239,000 interactions total (15.7%).

This data suggests that although right-leaning links and pages typically dominate abortion-related coverage, left-leaning and non-aligned sources surpass them when reacting to negative abortion-related news. The practical effect of this is that many readers on Facebook do not get the opportunity to learn about threats to reproductive health before these restrictions are enacted. This spike in engagements with left-leaning and non-aligned sources was not enough to correct for the massive amount of anti-abortion misinformation preceding the passage of Alabama’s abortion ban, but it does suggest that an audience exists for such content.

Right-wing media’s continued repetition of inaccurate talking points has enabled anti-abortion misinformation to drive policy making and poltical strategies. Republicans are already weaponizing the issue to undermine Democratic presidential candidates as part of a broader 2020 election strategy -- a strategy with potentially deadly consequences. The absurd anti-abortion rhetoric that dominates on Facebook exacerbates this problem, and abortion patients and providers are bearing the consequences.

Natalie Martinez contributed research to this report.