A leak from the Supreme Court earlier this week has made it clear that Roe v. Wade’s days are numbered, and, because it’s 2022 and not 1973, TikTokers have been all over it. This week, the platform has been flooded with users sharing personal abortion stories, amplifying abortion funds, and disseminating life-saving information about medication abortion pills. But some of the biggest pro-abortion TikTok accounts allege the platform is censoring and “shadow-banning” their content.
Paige Alexandria, an abortion rights activist and writer who runs @abortioncounselor2 on TikTok, says this week, within days of the leaked Supreme Court documents, she found her account had been banned without any reason specified. Alexandria’s account has been banned before; her numerous videos in which she recounts her abortion story, details the harassment of anti-abortion activists, or shares any other information about abortion access, have been taken down, sometimes mass-reported by anti-abortion activists on the platform. She says TikTok used to provide reasons why her content was removed or why her account was banned, but hasn’t recently.
“It’s happened to so many of us, honestly—like, I could list people, but all I need to say is if they’ve made an abortion video, they know what I’m talking about,” Alexandria told Jezebel.
As recently as around two years ago, Alexandria says pro-abortion posts on TikTok were minimal to nonexistent. Most abortion-related content instead came from groups like the anti-abortion organization Live Action, and it wasn’t until groups like Abortion Access Front, Shout Your Abortion, and the Texas-based youth abortion fund Jane’s Due Process joined TikTok that this dynamic began to shift. Alexandria’s own account was an early leader in establishing an unapologetic, pro-abortion community on TikTok—her videos, many of which assert that she has no regrets about her abortion, have accumulated millions of views and likes, and she had nearly 115,000 followers before being banned for a second time.
Whitney Shanahan, who launched the TikTok account @prochoicewithheart with two other TikTokers who shared abortion stories and information, says posting videos that include the word “abortion” can get either taken down altogether or “shadow-banned”—that is, buried by the algorithm and excluded from most users’ “For You” pages. In many other cases, Shanahan and Kristin Williams (@kris10isblue), another pro-abortion TikToker, tell Jezebel that especially this week, videos with abortion information and stories have been automatically placed “under review” by TikTok, where they remain in limbo and sometimes never go live. This often happens, Williams says, in the immediate aftermath of major news and legislation around reproductive rights.
Shanahan says she and her friends have tried to circumvent TikTok’s policing of abortion content with actions like typing out “ab0rtion,” with a zero. But a bigger problem has often been the mass-reporting of @prochoicewithheart’s videos by anti-abortion users for bogus reasons like “sexual content.”
“Most of the time, TikTok will restore the video and acknowledge that, ‘Hey, there was no violation, it was just mass reported,’” Shanahan told Jezebel. “But the problem is, it seems that still counts as a violation, and so they build up and lead to almost all of us having eventually getting outright bans.”
Williams tells Jezebel she’s had fewer issues with bans and TikToks being taken down than other creators. But when she’s made “reply” videos to anti-abortion users who comment on her posts, poking fun at them or at times making donations to abortion funds in their name, these videos will often be flagged and taken down for reasons like “bullying” and “harassment.” According to Williams, in actuality, it’s the other way around. “Anti-abortion users are coming on a public platform, leaving these hateful, disgusting comments. For me to be able to reply and be my authentic self should be tolerated within the community guidelines.”
Isabelle, who went by @abortionqweenn on TikTok and asked that her last name be excluded, says that growing a significant following on the platform seemed to work against her. Isabelle first made the account because she “had complicated feelings about my abortion,” and making videos “helped me as much as I think it helped others,” she told Jezebel in an email. But after she started working with Shout Your Abortion to create videos on topics like how to get an abortion if you’re under 18, and different abortion methods, she says she “started getting reported and banned after that, as my account kept growing,” and she “would have a lot of viral videos about abortion.”
“It was like the more attention my videos got, the more my account would get penalized,” Isabelle said. “It was like abortion information itself wasn’t allowed, while anti-abortion accounts could say whatever they wanted.” Shortly before her account was permanently banned, she was “getting temporarily banned every week, even when I wasn’t posting any videos.”
Casey Fiesler, an assistant professor of information science and computer science at University of Colorado Boulder who holds a PhD human-centered computing, tells Jezebel whether or not TikTok is intentionally suppressing pro-abortion content, its policies have allowed for mass-reporting of users to become a problem for pro-abortion users—and its lack of transparency around why users are being banned or seeing their posts taken down isn’t helping. “If there’s something intentional happening, it seems to be coordinated mass reporting,” Fiesler, who is on TikTok herself and posts about tech ethics and the internet, told Jezebel. “Another issue for a lot of activists can be, if someone is getting harassed and they then respond, it’s their content that’s taken down for harassment.”
To Alexandria, TikTok’s bizarre and aggressive content moderation practices around abortion-related videos speak to a greater issue with the platform’s “tendency to censor creators, specifically creators who are raising awareness on social issues.” She notes that this was an especially big problem amid the massive, nationwide uprisings for racial justice in the summer of 2020, and that censorship of abortion-related content, today, seems to disproportionately target Black creators and creators of color.
Despite Alexandria’s critiques of TikTok, she recognizes it’s a vitally important platform to be able to reach people who are impacted by abortion bans and restrictions. “People have messaged me and told me they found my videos literally moments after receiving a positive pregnancy test, or while waiting at the clinic for their abortion, or while having a medication abortion, like, literally bleeding and going through it.
“We’re reaching people in real time and meeting them where they’re at to make sure they have the information they need, and they feel supported. TikTok has proven to have such an enormous, tangible reach on audiences, and we can see the real result of information being shared far and wide.”
Williams, a mother of three based in Arizona, which just passed a 15-week abortion ban, says posting videos on TikTok helped her process the difficult emotions surrounding her own abortion, which had involved a wanted, unviable pregnancy, and that TikTok “really created the activist I am, today.” But, particularly as the platform which once almost exclusively comprised Gen-Z users has begun drawing older audience members, Williams takes issue with the ways her different videos are received, especially from older users.
“I’ll post videos where I’m, like, crying, telling my story, grieving the pregnancy loss side of my abortion, and there’s so much empathy and support in response to those,” she said. “But in videos where I’m defending or celebrating abortion, people don’t really want to see that side of it—they’d rather see the tears and the difficulty, which is hard for me.”
Like Alexandria and Williams, Shanahan also appreciates the power and potential of a platform like TikTok, and how its rapid pace and “unique features” can streamline dissemination of important abortion-related information. But she’s concerned the platform hasn’t invested enough in staffing and other resources for content moderation, since the app exploded in popularity in recent years.
“I think it was around a year-and-a-half ago that I noticed big changes,” Shanahan said. She says the platform “used to have a way for creators to get support or let them know if something was wrong,” where users would be connected to an actual person. Now, in Shanahan’s experience, this process has become entirely automated. “This new automated way of managing the community really empowers trolls, and really disempowers marginalized communities that are trying to speak up and defend their rights.”
Content moderation problems on TikTok are part of a larger issue with social media and abortion rights groups. Groups like Reproaction and Plan C Pills, which both regularly post and share information about abortion pills, have previously talked to Jezebel about their content being taken down from Facebook and Instagram, supposedly for being in violation of Meta’s policy against selling medical products. And despite frequent complaints from conservative and anti-abortion groups about supposedly being censored, Reproaction’s research has found double standards that allow Instagram and Facebook posts about anti-abortion junk science like “abortion pill reversal,” while abortion pill-related posts are hidden or removed. Digital platforms are also increasingly being wielded to surveil and possibly criminalize people who seek or have abortions—a threat that will only grow when Roe is formally struck down.
These problems may not be new, but it’s time for them to be addressed. “Having TikTok and all social platforms be supportive of abortion has never been more important,” Alexandria said. “People need to know what an abortion fund is, what a practical support funds are, about self-managed abortion, how to safely access it. And right now, we need community to feel supported instead of hopeless.”
TikTok did not immediately respond to Jezebel’s request for comment.