Birth control misinformation continues to go viral on TikTok

Multiple recent news reports outline the dangers of this kind of false and misleading content

Viral TikTok videos are falsely linking birth control to infertility and describing the medication as “absolutely poison,” while others make generalizations about side effects and suggest the pill tricks women’s brains into making them less attracted to “masculinity."

A recent report from The Washington Post examined how online birth control misinformation, combined with a lack of transparency about rare side effects from contraception, is causing women to believe misconceptions about the medication. The article says the trend is driven by an “underlying conservative push” by right-wing influencers:

The backlash to birth control comes at a time of rampant misinformation about basic health tenets amid poor digital literacy and a wider political debate over reproductive rights, in which far-right conservatives argue that broad acceptance of birth control has altered traditional gender roles and weakened the family.

Physicians and researchers say little data is available about the scale of this new phenomenon, but anecdotally, more patients are coming in with misconceptions about birth control fueled by influencers and conservative commentators.

Prominent conservative commentators have seized upon mistrust of medical professionals, sowing misinformation as a way to discourage the use of birth control. Some commentators inaccurately depict hormonal contraception as causing abortions. Others say they’re just looking out for women’s health.

The Post also notes, “The algorithms behind TikTok, YouTube and Instagram are designed to surface content similar to what viewers have already watched, which experts say leads viewers to believe that more people suffer complications than in reality.” Other news outlets have published similar reports mapping out the dangers of birth control misinformation and “influencer fearmongering” on TikTok amid the public’s declining trust in science and doctors.

Misinformation about birth control is going viral on TikTok

On TikTok, figures spreading misinformation are leveraging cherry-picked data and anecdotes about negative side effects of the pill to make blanket generalizations about its effects and scare women into believing that birth control — which is safe and effective — is dangerous.

In a May 2023 TikTok video with 144,000 views, for example, former Daily Wire host Candace Owens falsely insinuated that birth control causes infertility problems. (Owens has gone on to repeatedly attack birth control and suggest on social media that it is dangerous.)

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Citation From a TikTok video uploaded by @dailywire on May 18, 2023

In December, influencer Naftali Moses opened a TikTok video by claiming: “Birth control is absolutely poison for women. It changes the way that their brain thinks.”

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Citation TikTok uploaded by @naftalimoses on December 3, 2023

In March, a TikTok video from the Bad Therapy Podcast with 1.9 million views argued that taking the birth control pill “can change the kind of person you want to be with.”

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Citation TikTok uploaded by @badtherapy.podcast on March 19, 2024

Similarly, right-wing influencer Riley Mae Lewis uploaded a July 2023 clip from the right-wing Whatever dating podcast arguing that “women on birth control” choose partners who are “the opposite of what would be beneficial for their own immune system profile and genetic offspring."

The video is captioned “Birth Control is EVIL!” and currently has 289,000 views on TikTok.

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Citation TikTok uploaded by @rileymae on July 20, 2023

Podcaster Sahara Rose argued in a TikTok video that people started to rename birth control “the divorce pill” because going off the medication changes who people are attracted to. Throughout the video, which has more than 550,900 views, a line across the screen reads “How Birth Control Impacts Who You’re Attracted To.”

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Citation TikTok uploaded by @iamsahararose on May 23, 2023

Making blanket statements about how birth control affects women is misleading — experts say that while there may be an “association” between hormones and some elements of physical attraction, “suggesting that birth control can alter mate preference,” it is difficult to be certain there is a “cause and effect” relationship.

Additionally, as The Washington Post noted, many of the studies that influencers point to “have small sample sizes or are otherwise flawed … which can show correlation but not necessarily causation."

No medication is perfect, and doctors need to be clear about potential side effects with their patients — the lived experiences of people on birth control are valid, and side effects from these medications vary from person to person.

However, influencers on TikTok are leveraging cherry-picked data points and anecdotes about negative side effects from birth control to make blanket generalizations about its effects that are misleading and potentially dangerous.

The Washington Post debunks one such TikTok clip about the medication’s possible side effects (emphasis added):

The Food and Drug Administration points out that the risk of developing blood clots from using birth-control pills — 3 to 9 women out of 10,000 who are on the pill — remains lower than the risk of developing blood clots in pregnancy and in the postpartum period.

Even though TikTok content containing misinformation about birth control may not inherently be political, right-wing media figures can exploit these narratives to further their agenda against reproductive rights. Several prominent right-wing influencers have recently launched attacks against birth control, and even seemingly apolitical content spreading misinformation about the subject can inadvertently amplify these smears.

The flood of misinformation surrounding birth control also comes as members of the GOP have repeatedly attempted to strip women of their right to contraception following the 2022 Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. According to one expert who spoke to the Post, “women frequently come in for abortions after believing what they see on social media about the dangers of hormonal birth control and the effectiveness of tracking periods to prevent pregnancy.”

What can TikTok do?

The Post’s reporting spurred TikTok to delete videos “linking birth control to mental health issues,” among other misleading claims. A TikTok spokesperson confirmed to the Post that some videos the outlet identified violated TikTok’s company policies against “inaccurate, misleading or false content that may cause significant harm to individuals or society."

By design, TikTok’s “For You Page” algorithm feeds content to users based on “interests” or “connections” that can make it easier to be pulled into a world of radical content, even if they are not seeking it out. This could lead TikTok users — many of them children — to view and possibly believe medical misinformation from influencers that right-wing figures are exploiting to vilify and fearmonger about birth control.

To protect its users, TikTok must be more proactive in enforcing its community guidelines against medical misinformation and making sure that users who spread misleading content about birth control are not finding viral success on its platform.