On night two of the Republican National Convention, right-wing media’s strategy of flooding the zone with anti-abortion misinformation appeared to pay off, with a dangerous, lie-filled speech by an anti-abortion activist getting airtime and uncritical mainstream media coverage.
Without a doubt, right-wing lies about abortion dominate both cable coverage and news on Facebook. Conservative outlets like Fox News and the anti-abortion site Live Action News typically outperform other neutral or left-leaning sources when it comes to abortion-related content. Such domination creates a void in the conversation for those seeking accurate, fact-based reporting on abortion from outlets outside of the right-wing media echo chamber.
The disparity in coverage is also dangerous. Right-wing media's anti-abortion lies create a stigma in which abortion seems morally or socially wrong. In particular, right-wing media have capitalized on a lack of accurate information about abortion to demonize providers, patients, and advocates. Eventually, this consistent volume of anti-abortion content has spilled over and spread misinformation in more mainstream media outlets by influencing story framing and the general terms of conversation.
Tuesday night at the Republican National Convention proved that strategy is paying off. Anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson took the stage for a roughly 10-minute speech in which she lied about the graphic nature of abortion and also repeated some of Fox News and other right-wing media outlet’s favorite anti-abortion myths. She incorrectly claimed Planned Parenthood targets Black people by locating clinics in minority communities and also said that Planned Parenthood has “abortion quotas” and is focused on “profit” rather than providing health care -- claims with no merit.
Before taking her story to the national stage, Johnson wrote a memoir on her alleged experience working at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas that became a movie last year (the film went on to receive more than $1 million in free promotion from Fox News). But even her initial claim to fame -- she used to work for Planned Parenthood, but converted to anti-abortion views after supposedly witnessing an abortion procedure -- has been in doubt for many years.
Johnson also came under fire in the hours before her speech for a video she had posted claiming that it would be “smart” for police to profile her biracial son because “statistically, my brown son is more likely to commit a violent offense over my white sons,” and for tweets saying that voting should be done by household and “in a Godly household, the husband would get the final say.”
As we’ve seen in the ramp-up to the 2020 election, the right-wing misinformation such as that espoused by Johnson at the RNC is designed to paint the Democratic presidential ticket as “extreme” and out of touch with public opinion on abortion. However, as The New York Times’ Lauren Kelley explained, “The word ‘abortion’ does not show up once in the transcripts of the four-night” Democratic National Convention, while the RNC prominently featured Johnson, who “is on the right flank of the anti-abortion movement and has in recent years supported extreme measures like so-called heartbeat bills, which ban abortion before many women realize they’re pregnant.”
Coverage of Johnson’s speech showed that with only anti-abortion misinformation to turn to, mainstream outlets can wittingly or unwittingly repeat the lies without critical pushback.
Politico, Axios, and The Independent simply repeated the anti-abortion lies in their tweets. And in an article about Johnson's speech, Politico uncritically repeated many of her false claims, noting only that “Planned Parenthood Votes, the group's electoral arm, dismissed Johnson's claims as part of a campaign to ‘lie and stigmatize sexual and reproductive health care services.’”
Johnson’s presence on the stage, her dangerous lies, and the lack of pushback from some mainstream news outlets show that, unfortunately, right-wing media have been successful in spreading anti-abortion misinformation and setting the terms of the conversation.