Meta and Google accused of restricting reproductive health information

Technology Desk Published: 28 March 2024, 02:47 PM
Meta and Google accused of restricting reproductive health information

Meta and Google are accused in a new report of obstructing information on abortion and reproductive healthcare across Africa, Latin America and Asia, reports The Guardian. 

MSI Reproductive Choices (formerly Marie Stopes International) and the Center for Countering Digital Hate claim the platforms are restricting local abortion providers from advertising, but failing to tackle misinformation that undermines public access to reproductive healthcare.

Meta said it will review the report’s findings.

MSI, which provides contraception and abortion services in 37 countries, said its adverts containing information on sexual health, including cancer advice, had been rejected or deleted by the platform.

Phrases such as “pregnancy options” have been flagged as falling foul of Google community guidelines, MSI Ghana claims. MSI Vietnam said Facebook adverts promoting information about IUDs (intrauterine devices) and other contraceptive methods were removed.

Whitney Chinogwenya, MSI’s global marketing manager, said: “In Africa, Facebook is the go-to place for reproductive health information for many women. We have been scaling our digital operation to meet the demand but we’re struggling to get reliable information in front of the women who need it.

“We deal with everything from menopause to menstruation but we find that all our content is censored.”

She said Meta viewed reproductive health content through “an American lens”, applying socially conservative US values to posts published in countries with progressive policies such as South Africa, where abortion on request is legal in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.

MSI Mexico said its Facebook posts advertising legal abortion services have been deleted by the platform. Abortion was decriminalised in September and is available on request in Mexico City and 11 other states.

Chinogwenya said Meta is not doing enough to combat anti-abortion misinformation, accepting adverts from organisations that claim medical abortions lead to “fatal vaginal bleeding” or that upload gestational images of advanced pregnancies claiming they are from earlier foetal stages in an effort to stigmatise the procedure.

The report, published on Wednesday, identified fake MSI pages on Facebook, including five in Kenya.

MSI said it tried to request that Meta delete the pages, but struggled to reach a representative of the company.

“Some of the pages belong to informal abortion providers who want to piggyback off MSI’s reputations,” Chinogwenya said. “Others will belong to pregnancy crisis centres, which pose as abortion clinics to discourage and prevent women from terminating their pregnancy. But there are also many scammers. Women often come to our clinics after being sold anything from aspirin to laxatives by online scammers.”

The report said MSI clinics in Ghana were being targeted by a disinformation campaign on the Meta-owned messaging platform WhatsApp.

“Putting a factchecking system in place for reproductive health information and services is one of the best things Meta could do,” said Esi Asare Prah, the advocacy and donor relations manager at MSI Ghana, where abortion is allowed in limited circumstances. She hopes the report will make digital platforms conscious of their responsibilities towards users in the global south. “Whether it’s content promoting health misinformation or directing women and girls towards unsafe services, there are real users being disadvantaged in the end,” she said.

The report was compiled through correspondence and interviews with MSI’s local teams in Ghana, Kenya, Mexico, Nepal, Nigeria and Vietnam, and evidence collected from Meta’s Ad Library.

A Meta spokesperson, Ryan Daniels, said: “We allow posts and ads promoting healthcare services, as well as discussion and debate around them. Content about reproductive health must follow our rules, including those on prescription drugs and misinformation, and ads promoting reproductive health products or services may only be targeted to people 18-plus.

“We prohibit ads that include misinformation or mislead people about services a business provides, and we will review the content of this report.”

A Google spokesperson said: “This report does not include a single example of policy-violating content on Google’s platform, nor any examples of inconsistent enforcement.”

The spokesperson said adverts that reference “pregnancy options” are not prohibited from running in Ghana. “If the ads were restricted, it was likely due to our longstanding policies against targeting people based on sensitive health categories, which includes pregnancy.”