In May 2022 the Washington, D.C.-based media outlet POLITICO published a draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion about removing nationwide guarantees of abortion access in the United States. The news quickly made headlines at publications including the New York Times, Associated Press, CNN, NBC, ABC, Fox News, CNBC, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and The Washington Post.
Several weeks later the high court formally delivered its decision, removing a constitutional right to access abortion in the United States that had been in place for 50 years and triggering renewed front-page coverage of the historic event.
A Meedan analysis of social media data surrounding the two monumental Supreme Court events in the summer of 2022 found that the May leak and June decision were both associated with increases in misinformation online.1
Over the course of three months Meedan accessed and sorted thousands of Twitter posts to identify conversations about abortion in May and June 2022 surrounding the leak and decision. We closely reviewed information in 400 of the posts to understand the evolving online narratives surrounding the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion.
As both stories about Roe v. Wade broke in May and then in June, the overall online conversation about abortion in the United States skyrocketed—with tweets about abortion increasing approximately four-fold just after the leak, and another large increase when the decision was announced.
Rather than being diluted by growing online noise after the historic decision made headlines, the misinformation instead persisted. Despite the boom in conversation, we found that the percentage of tweets containing misinformation did not significantly change.2
Given that the rate of misinformation in our samples stayed relatively consistent amid the growing overall conversation, we can infer that the absolute amount of misinformation on Twitter increased as discussion about the topic increased.
Misinformation spiked more dramatically after the leak
Online conversations about any topic can peak and then dip as public attention snowballs and then fades. As the figure shows, this is what happened during the May Supreme Court leak and June decision.
Three specific topics associated with abortion misinformation spiked and then dropped in the days following the events of June 2022.4 Two of those three topics also spiked following the May leak. For our work examining these three topics, we analyzed every original tweet we found that contained key phrases. These topics were “herbal abortion”, “abortion pill reversal,” and “chemical abortion.”
The first term that spiked, “herbal abortion,” is a term often used to describe different false and harmful ways to induce abortion using herbs and plants. There are no herbs or tonics that can safely cause an abortion. Our analysis shows that use of the term—and misinformation using it—increased after the Supreme Court decision.
“Abortion pill reversal,” another high risk term which includes misinformation online about life-threatening methods for reversing an abortion, also increased after the decision.
“Chemical abortion” is a proxy for abortion misinformation because of its association with false claims that put people at risk of avoiding use of medication abortion when they might otherwise want or need it.
Many of the claims reviewed by Meedan after the Supreme Court leak and decision were the same narratives that existed online before those two events. This finding suggests that there may be promise in preparing for potential spikes in mis- and disinformation through prebunking and setting contingency plans in place with fact-checks ready for common narratives about different topics (e.g., abortion, COVID-19, etc).
More work needs to be done to replicate and validate the findings of this investigation and to account for its limitations. Some paths forward may include searching for a broader selection of terms, increasing the sample size of tweets, reviewing a longer time range, expanding the investigation to other platforms and using more reviewers to assess samples.
In addition to improving this study, more work is needed in general to understand how misinformation changes in the wake of other news events so that we can continue to improve our preparation for surges in misinformation—particularly if digital ecosystems grow more divisive and crises grow more likely.
Finally, more research is also needed on the health impacts of this type of misinformation. It’s one thing to track how misinformation is increasing, and another to know what the actual adverse impacts of surges in misinformation may be for social media users.
- Online conversations are heavily influenced by news coverage, like the 2022 Supreme Court decision on abortion. The relationship is less clear between big breaking news and specific increases in online misinformation.
- The tweets analyzed were a random sample qualitatively coded as “misinformation” or “not misinformation” by two qualitative coders trained in public health and internet studies.
- This method used Twitter’s historical search API
- The peak was a significant outlier compared to days before it using Grubbs' test for outliers for Chemical Abortion (p<0.2 for the decision; p<0.003 for the leak) and Herbal Abortion (p<0.001 for the decision and leak).
- All our searches were case insensitive and could match substrings; so, “revers” matches “reverse”, “reversal”, etc.
Jenna Sherman, MPH, is a Program Manager for Meedan’s Digital Health Lab. Her work has focused on digital health challenges across information access, maternal incarceration, and discrimination in AI. She has her MPH from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Social and Behavioral Sciences.
Megan runs Meedan’s Health Desk initiative as Senior Program Manager. She has worked for news outlets in Canada and the US, and holds a Peabody Award for her work on Netflix’s Patriot Act series. She has a Master of Science from the Columbia Journalism School.
Dr Scott A. Hale leads Meedan’s research in human-in-the-loop machine learning and natural language processing to create equitable access to information. He is a professor and researcher at the University of Oxford on the topic of hate speech, misinformation, and broadening access to data and methods.
Nat Gyenes, MPH, leads Meedan’s Digital Health Lab. She received her masters in public health from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, with a focus on equitable access to health information and human rights. She is a lecturer at Harvard University on the topic of health, digital media and human rights.