Social media will not be able to remain neutral on abortion

The end of Roe v. Wade leaves web platforms scrambling to deal with questions about moderation — and data safety — surrounding newly introduced abortion bans.

For years, web platforms have faced relatively little pushback for promising to remove posts that violate US law, even if there is debate over whether specific content meets that standard. Policies that “fit the laws of the land” — those of Elon Musk an initial description of his plans for Twitter — are usually code for many permissive moderation in the US, where the First Amendment has historically protected a vast swath of content. The 2018 FOSTA-SESTA carve-out, a rare exception, targeted the marginalized sex worker community and used the justification that it was fighting the justifiably loathed cause of forced sex trafficking.

But current and upcoming state anti-abortion laws may change that. The laws — currently in effect in several states — prohibit a medical procedure that most Americans believe it must be legal, and some groups want this ban to cover even information about the procedure. Large parts of the network mobilized in response, offering people who want an abortion and sending abortion pills, publishing information about self-arranged abortion, and (in rare cases) calling for violent resistance.

This is already raising questions for Facebook and Instagram’s parent company, Meta. Earlier this week, both platforms removed those posts offered to send abortion pills, citing rules against offering to “buy, sell, trade, gift, solicit or donate pharmaceutical products.” According to report from The interceptionit also bans praising or supporting an abortion rights protest group called Jane’s Revenge, which claimed responsibility for setting fire to the office of an anti-abortion group, among other incidents.

These decisions are not particularly surprising. Shipping abortion pills to states like Texas can be against those states’ laws, and Meta also has bans on the sale of drugs like cannabis. Jane’s Revenge supports a cause that many people find sympathetic and the extent of the group’s size or activity far from clearbut it took credit for crimes and called for a “night of rage” and “drastic measures” against the anti-abortion infrastructure.

However, critics question the level of scrutiny that abortion-related content has received. Instagram has been taken down for a while abortion service locator account and restricted the hashtag “mifepristone” on the grounds that it was being used in posts that violated the guidelines. Jane’s Revenge has reportedly been designated a “Tier 1” priority group, a higher restriction than the rebel groups Oath Keepers and Three Centerers.

Those decisions could ultimately go to the Oversight Board, which theoretically exists to make tough, nuanced moderation calls with some independence from the Meta. But with Roe v. Wade repealed just a week ago, the Board of Supervisors has not heard any abortion-related cases. (A spokesperson confirmed an email from On the edge asking if it was considering the issues, but the organization didn’t respond by press time.) It seems plausible that it will in the future — possibly drawing lines between things like providing medical information and directly facilitating a procedure.

But even if it tackles the problem, it won’t stop countries and politicians from after platforms which hosts content related to abortion. A model anti-abortion law from the National Right to Life Anti-Abortion Committee would ban the offering of information about obtaining an illegal abortion, and South Carolina lawmakers have already proposed obvious version of it in the state legislature. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act helps protect sites from liability at the moment, but faces multiple challenges in the courts and in Congress.

Abortion isn’t the only issue where platforms can face a patchwork of takedown requests. neither Politics notes, 34 states have introduced (and two have passed) bills regulating social media moderation; many require sites to leave specific content upbut etc download search things like medical misinformation. Meanwhile, there is a growing political movement stop the booksellers and libraries from allowing minors to access LGBTQ-related books, and if it continues to escalate, the fight could easily move online.

Web platforms have always had to deal with compliance with laws that their founders didn’t necessarily agree with, and often did. Twitter has clamped down on hate speech in European countries while seeking to serve as the “free speech wing of the Free Speech Party,” and Amazon recently limited LGBTQ searches in the United Arab Emirates, among many other examples. But they have also been called upon to draw moral lines that go beyond obeying the laws of a country. Apple, for example, has been criticized for subsequent Chinese demands for censorship and access to user data. In the US, sites that obey the police requests related to abortions may face the same censure.

Companies like Meta have practical incentives to avoid being perceived as biased in the US and have gone to great lengths to do so, even when it involves deliberately put their thumb on the moderation scale. While many expressed support for employee reproductive choice, they were quieter about any broader position about the end of Roe v. Wade. But as abortion bans spread, that will become increasingly difficult — and eventually they will have to make the call.

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