In 2019, right-wing media have dominated abortion-related coverage with sensationalized anti-choice rhetoric and harmful misinformation. And on Facebook, anti-abortion misinformation is consistently outperforming all other coverage of abortion-related news.
A Media Matters study of top-engaged U.S. abortion-related coverage on Facebook in the month of April found that 63% of links with the most Facebook interactions came from right-leaning websites, and 72% of the Facebook page posts with the most interactions came from right-leaning pages. Two anti-abortion websites, LifeNews.com and Live Action, made up almost 30% of viral links, and the two main Facebook pages affiliated with these sites made up more than a quarter of the most popular Facebook posts.
Top-engaged content from right-leaning sources often pushed anti-abortion misinformation. Twenty-three percent of links from right-leaning websites reviewed in this study pushed for six-week bans on abortion (also inaccurately referred to as “heartbeat bills”) based on the anti-choice claim that abortion should be banned as soon as fetal cardiac activity is detected, typically by six weeks. Medical experts, however, say “cardiac activity isn't a credible measure of fetal viability.” Right-leaning websites and pages also shared false stories about Democrats supporting “infanticide” (they don’t) and anti-conservative censorship by social media platforms (there is none).
Sixty-three percent of the top links related to abortion news on Facebook came from right-leaning websites.
Media Matters reviewed 278 top links related to abortion news which collectively earned 13.6 million interactions on Facebook. Right-leaning websites had 175 links (63%), which earned over 8.6 million interactions (63.6%). Websites that aren’t politically aligned had 80 links (28.8%), which earned 3.8 million interactions (27.8%). And left-leaning websites had just 23 links (8.3%), which earned 1.2 million interactions (8.6%).
Many of the most widely shared links referenced debunked or misleading narratives about abortion, like the idea that Democratic politicians are endorsing “infanticide” by supporting abortion access later in pregnancy. Twenty-three percent of top right-leaning links related to abortion news in April celebrated the passage of six-week abortion bans. The most popular link during the time frame analyzed was from the right-wing Christian site The Stream, directing Facebook users to an article that quoted a Republican Ohio state representative calling Ohio’s six-week ban “the most compassionate bill we’ve ever passed.” It earned over 904,000 interactions on Facebook. In reality, these six-week abortion laws are effectively a ban on abortion access that will have devastating consequences for patients seeking care.
One source, the anti-abortion website LifeNews.com, amassed 24% of all top link interactions
LifeNews.com had by far the most top-engaged links at 58 links (20.9%) and received the highest number of Facebook interactions at 3.2 million (23.9%). Ben Shapiro's The Daily Wire followed at 21 top-engaged links (7.6%) with 943,000 interactions (7%). Live Action came in third with 18 top-engaged links (6.5%), but the interactions it received, 816,555 (6%), were not the third highest in the list. The Stream had only one top-engaged link but received the third-highest number of interactions -- 904,000 (6.7%).
Overall, 10 of the top 13 domains with the most viral links related to abortion belonged to right-leaning sources; three belonged to websites without political alignment. Seven of the 10 websites whose top-engaged links got the most Facebook interactions were right-leaning; of the other three, two were without political alignment and one was left-leaning. This trend is consistent with data that shows that across all types of content, right-wing publishers dominate on Facebook.
LifeNews.com, founded by the president of Colorado Citizens for Life, exists explicitly to advocate against abortion and to report “news that affects the pro-life community.” The site regularly publishes sensationalized headlines and misleading stories as part of anti-abortion misinformation campaigns. Almost half of LifeNews.com’s top-engaged links made some reference to Democrats allegedly supporting “infanticide,” a debunked claim misrepresenting later abortion procedures that are often necessary in instances of fetal abnormality or threats to the life of the pregnant person. These inaccurate allegations about “infanticide” have been consistently amplified by right-wing media. One article on LifeNews.com -- which earned 281,000 interactions on Facebook -- falsely asserted in its headline and body that Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam “supported infanticide.” Another article claiming in its headline that Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) was “tired of Republicans trying to stop infanticide” earned over 174,000 interactions. This false narrative is not just inaccurate; it also actively villainizes abortion providers, fueling incidents of anti-choice harassment and even violence.
Over 72% of top Facebook page posts related to abortion news in the U.S. came from right-leaning Facebook pages
The 261 top Facebook page posts related to abortion news earned over 4.5 million interactions in total. Of the 261 posts, 190 were posted by right-leaning pages (72.8%) and they earned almost 3.2 million interactions (70.5%). Thirty-eight posts came from pages without political alignment (14.6%); they earned almost 723,000 interactions (16%). And just 33 posts came from left-leaning pages (12.6%), and they earned over 614,000 interactions (13.6%).
Just two anti-abortion pages earned 25% of all Facebook interactions from top Facebook posts
As with links, the page associated with LifeNews.com dominated in terms of abortion-related Facebook page posts. Forty-two of the top-engaged posts came from LifeNews.com’s main Facebook page (16.1%), and they earned almost 689,000 interactions (15.2%). Live Action’s main Facebook page had 26 top-engaged posts (10%) that earned over 523,000 interactions (11.6%). The Facebook page affiliated with Live Action President Lila Rose had the fourth highest number of top-engaged posts at 14 (5.4%) and fifth highest number of interactions with over 179,000 interactions (4%). Ben Shapiro’s Facebook page had the third highest number of top-engaged posts at 21(8%) that earned almost 342,000 interactions (7.6%).
Overall, the top eight Facebook pages with the most top-engaged posts about abortion were all right-leaning; the following two top-engaged pages were both without political alignment. And seven of the 10 Facebook pages that earned the most interactions on posts we reviewed were right-leaning; of the remaining three, two pages did not have political alignment and one was left-leaning.
Right-leaning sources and anti-abortion sites are still claiming their content is being censored even though they are outperforming left-leaning sources and sources without political affiliation on Facebook
Some of the highest-performing Facebook pages that regularly discuss abortion belong to groups that routinely claim that tech platforms censor anti-abortion or conservative content. Live Action has sent multiple fundraising emails to supporters alleging that the organization’s content is “being suppressed” by Twitter and Facebook. However, posts from Live Action and the organization's founder, Lila Rose, together accounted for a larger share of top Facebook posts related to abortion coverage (15.3%) than all left-leaning pages combined (12.6%).
These censorship claims fall in line with right-wing media’s claim that tech companies are supposedly censoring conservative voices. Two Media Matters studies about political content on Facebook, published in July 2018 and April 2019, found no evidence to support these claims. And yet, right-wing outlets and anti-abortion media have inspired Republican lawmakers to hold congressional hearings on the matter.
Using Newswhip’s social media monitoring program Spike, Media Matters searched for links published online between April 1, 2019, and April 30, 2019, that included any of the following words or phrases in the headline: abortion, abortions, abort, pro life, pro-life, partial birth, partial-birth, fetus, crisis pregnancy, late term, late-term, infanticide, unborn, preborn, Roe v Wade, Roe v. Wade, pro choice, pro-choice, anti-abortion, Planned Parenthood, Title X, gag rule, anti-choice, and anti choice. Researchers filtered search results on Spike by the amount of Facebook interactions and exported data for the 300 links with the most interactions. The search was repeated for Facebook page posts published between April 1, 2019, and April 30, 2019. Data for the top 300 Facebook page posts with the most interactions was also downloaded.
Researchers individually reviewed all links and posts to exclude irrelevant content, including that which had nothing to do with English-language abortion news coverage in the U.S., coverage that mentioned abortion in the U.S. only tangentially, or content published by satire sources like The Onion or The Babylon Bee. After exclusions, the final sample size analyzed was 278 links and 261 Facebook page posts.
The political affiliation of most sources had been previously coded as part of earlier Media Matters studies, and the previous political-alignment codes for those pages were applied. For sources without previous coding, two researchers independently coded each domain and Facebook page as either “left-leaning,” “right-leaning,” or without political alignment, as determined by the source’s name and an analysis of its published content. Sources that expressed opposition to President Donald Trump or focused on issues primarily aimed at liberals (e.g., protecting abortion rights, calling for action against gun violence, etc.) were coded as left-leaning. Sources that expressed support for Trump or focused on issues primarily aimed at conservatives (e.g., restricting abortion rights, downplaying gun violence, etc.) were coded as right-leaning. All right-wing and left-wing media outlets and organizations were automatically coded as right-leaning or left-leaning, respectively. Pages that did not have an ideological leaning were coded as nonaligned. Coding conflicts were resolved by a third researcher.