Pro-Abortion, Anti-Abortion Activists Have One Thing in Common: Suspicion of Tech PlatformsGabby Miller / Jan 9, 2024
Following the US Supreme Court decision in 2022 that ended the federal right to abortion access, researchers at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin decided to track ‘folk theories’ around abortion-related speech emerging across ideologically disparate communities, particularly ‘anti-abortion’ and ‘pro-abortion’ activists. Their findings, published last month in the journal Information, Communication & Society, show how users in each activist group conceptualize how platforms adjudicate abortion-related content. The research also reveals a concern the two ideologically opposed groups share: opaque platform governance fuels a general belief that content decisions are ideologically motivated, which leads to feelings of marginalization, isolation, and censorship across the political spectrum.
Users make assumptions about the function of social media algorithms and how platforms make content moderation decisions. The study borrows terms such as ‘algorithmic gossip,’ ‘algorithmic folklore,’ ‘algorithmic imaginary’, or ‘folk theory’ to explore these assumptions around platform governance, which arise from platform opacity and evolve at the crossroads of users’ lived experiences and the bounds of their technical knowledge of how social media platforms work.
For instance, shadowbanning – defined as a practice where content is demoted by platforms without a user knowing – is a controversial internet phenomenon that’s even been adopted by political influencers, and has led to a “significant degree of misunderstanding of what platform practices may or may not fall into its purview,” according to the authors. They found that anti-abortion and pro-abortion advocates overwhelmingly believe that platform governance is driven by ideology, which the authors refer to as ‘ideological suspicion.’
Whether shadowbanning is actually occurring–and if so, how and to what degree–was outside the study’s scope. The goal was to understand what these activists think is happening. “Being suspicious must be seen as a genuine response to the fickle nature of platform governance,” the authors wrote. “After all, platforms continuously ‘alter their organizational protocols in pursuit of furthering their business interests and generating goodwill with governments.’” This strategic ambiguity around platform governance has allowed Instagram (owned by Meta) to, for instance, depict shadow banning as an urban myth of sorts, a tactic described by scholars like Kelley Cotter as ‘black box gaslighting,’ or a technique for platforms to destabilize credible criticism around their algorithms.
Summary of anti-abortion activists folk theories on platform governance
- A significant number of the anti-abortion activists interviewed in the study believe that the platforms are fundamentally in favor of abortion rights, and they are being punished for going against the ideological grain. Permanent bans on certain anti-abortion activists (sometimes with no appeal options), especially on TikTok, is a supporting example.
- A sudden drop in content engagement is often regarded as a meaningful indicator that platforms took an ideologically driven action against anti-abortion activists, and a confirmation that shadowbanning is real.
- Anti-abortion activists do not wholesale reject the necessity of platform governance, but hope it can be used by platforms for user safety, rather than eliminating anti-abortion content.
- Anti-abortion activists often believe that platforms are willing to spread misinformation in line with the ideological underpinnings of pro-abortion rights groups.
Summary of pro-abortion activists folk theories on platform governance
- Pro-abortion activists often believe that platforms make it difficult for them to place advertisements online for their cause, whereas anti-abortion activists are easily able to advertise without constraint.
- Many believe that shadowbanning of pro-abortion activists was exacerbated after the Supreme Court’s impending decision to reverse Roe v. Wade was leaked to the press.
- Pro-abortion activists worry about self-censorship within their activist community due to prior experiences of harassment, intimidation, and violent threats and imagery. They are relatedly concerned that future laws may ban pro-abortion speech altogether, but hold out hope that the First Amendment may aid pro-abortion activists.
Common ground among pro- and anti-abortion activists on platform governance
Shared ‘ideological suspicion’ across the two activist communities led to one of the study’s “most perplexing” findings. “In an attention economy in which activists from opposing ideological ends competed for visibility, they arrived at strikingly similar conclusions of unfairness and bias,” they wrote. This not only underscored widespread mistrust in platforms’ ability to foster equitable public disclosure, but also highlighted how platform governance is seen by anti- and pro-abortion activists as a “zero-sum game,” meaning more visibility for one side meant less for the other, according to the authors.
The study found other commonalities among these ‘strange bedfellows.’ Both anti- and pro-abortion activists agreed that their online advertising efforts were unfairly censored by platforms, and that this was not only a real threat to their messaging but could threaten public discourse more broadly. These substantial agreements regarding abortion-related content across both ideologies, according to the authors, “mirrors increasing bipartisan agreement among Republicans and Democrats on the need for more technology regulation, if not necessarily agreement on how that should be done.”
Regardless of whether platforms are actually governing content in line with any particular ideological goal, the study argues it is nonetheless important to note that when creators are left in the dark about their contents’ engagement, it encourages mistrust of platforms and feelings of symbolic annihilation. While the authors argue for future research that investigates the actual governance of abortion-related content at social media companies, which they acknowledge as being ‘notoriously challenging’ given the unwillingness of tech firms to share data, any insight into the black box of platform governance is a worthy endeavor post-Dobbs.