Google urged to stop directing people to fake abortion clinics


Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have laws explicitly protecting abortion rights at the state level, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research centre based in New York and Washington that supports abortion rights. Remaining states either have no specific law or unenforced bans on the books.

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Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, told The Washington Post that the draft Supreme Court opinion that leaked in May has stimulated “massive” growth globally in fundraising activity and creativity among groups that seek to undermine fundamental reproductive rights. Similar themes around reproductive rights and abortion misinformation are emerging in Kenya, Latin America and the United Kingdom, he said.

Fighting misinformation through accurate search results is especially critical for Google given its global reach, Ahmed said. Google is far and away the most popular search engine, with more than 90 percent of the global market share, according to the German consumer data analysis company, Statista.

“When Google screws up, it can have an enormous impact on the whole word,” Ahmed said.

How Google’s search algorithm works is a tightly guarded trade secret, but the company says in a public-facing guide on its search engine that Google looks for webpages deemed relevant to a user’s search query and then returns results it believes “are the highest quality and most relevant to the user.” Google said it uses “hundreds of factors” including user location and language to determine “relevancy”.

But Ahmed said the search algorithm can be easily gamed as it tries to determine which webpages are relevant, including by groups that create networks of pages that interlink to each other.

Fake abortion clinics, which often self-style as “crisis pregnancy centres” or “pregnancy resource centres” do not provide abortions, though critics say they try to create a veneer of medical facility by offering pregnancy tests, ultrasounds or testing for sexually-transmitted infections. The American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics has argued that while “crisis pregnancy centres” are legal, they are unethical “by providing misleading information and causing delays and inequities in access to abortion”.

Instead, the sites for the “crisis pregnancy centres” actively dissuade patients from choosing abortion, often through misinformation. Among the false claims made by fake clinics cited in the CCDH report are that abortions will make a pregnant person infertile or that suicidal impulses are “common” after an abortion.

Ahmed stressed the relevant criticism of fake abortion clinics is not their ideology, but the deceptive tactics they use to induce people to behave in a way they want.

“People have a right to hold an opinion on abortion,” he said. “But it’s [their] use of deception that makes it so malignant.”

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With disinformation and misinformation having direct repercussions on people’s personal health, Ahmed said it’s crucial for major technology platforms to act responsibly – and for policymakers to hold them to account.

“This is just another example of how hate and disinformation actors can weaponise digital platforms to cause real-world harm to people,” he said.

The Washington Post


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