Facebook users writing about mailing abortion pills had their posts removed this week, and in some cases, their accounts temporarily suspended, for violating the company’s terms of service rules against buying, selling, or exchanging drugs. However, testing conducted by Gizmodo and previous reporting from Vice suggests Facebook is only flagging certain, less active accounts and leaving little room for distinctions between actively selling drugs online and posts attempting to spread awareness of the availability of legal abortion methods via the internet. The company copped to “incorrect enforcement” with regards to some of the posts.
A Vice report Monday detailed accounts of users who claimed they had their posts removed and accounts banned after posting about abortion access by mail. One user claimed Facebook removed their post less than one minute after it went live. “I will mail abortion pills to any one of you,” the users reportedly wrote. “Just message me.” Using a burner account, Vice reporters posted the phrase, “abortion pills can be mailed,” which was flagged within seconds for violating Facebook’s rules around drugs.
Gizmodo attempted to replicate these findings using the phrase, “abortion pills can be mailed.” Both of these writers were successfully able to post that phrase on our personal accounts without incident. When that same phrase was posted using one of our less active “burner” accounts, however, the post was flagged almost immediately. Above the post, an alert from Meta said, “Your post goes against our Community Standards on drugs.”
Though Facebook’s terms of service do clearly forbid the buying or selling of pharmaceutical drugs on its platform, it’s unclear whether the term “abortion pills can be mailed” meets that description. Instead, users trying to inform others of their options for abortion procedures amid a time of unyielding stress and uncertainty were, in some cases, denied a platform on the world’s largest social media network.
Gizmodo then attempted to write a series of posts that would more clearly violate Facebook’s terms by explicitly offering abortion pills as a product for sale. We posted the phrase, “I will sell you abortion pills, dm me” on both an active personal account and a less active burner account. Once again, this post was published on the active account without incident and was only flagged on the burner account.
In response to a series of questions sent by Gizmodo, a Meta spokesperson pointed us to a statement from Meta Communication Director Andy Stone, who admitted instances of “incorrect enforcement” have occurred.
“Content that attempts to buy, sell, trade, gift, request or donate pharmaceuticals is not allowed,” Stone said. “Content that discusses the affordability and accessibility of prescription medication is allowed. We’ve discovered some instances of incorrect enforcement and are correcting these.”
It remains unclear exactly why some accounts received warnings or temporary bans when others didn’t for posting the exact same phrases, though we spotted what looks like a pattern. In all of our test posts, Facebook’s detection system only flagged abortion-related content posted from less active accounts. This distinction appeared to ring true even for non-abortion-related content. Vice reporters on Monday, for example, said they successfully posted the phrase “painkiller pills can be mailed,” without any issue. When Gizmodo tried to post a test involving the synthetic opioid fentanyl from a burner account, that post was immediately flagged for violating the site’s drug policies.
Meta did not respond to Gizmodo’s additional questions about why burner accounts appeared more likely to be flagged for posting the same content as more active accounts.
Complications and confusion around abortion treatment content aren’t limited to the Big Blue app either. NBC News reported Monday that Instagram deleted some posts and limited the visibility of at least two hashtags related to abortion services since the Supreme Court’s decision last week. According to the report, searches for “mifepristone”, one of the more population medication abortion options, as well as the phrase “abortion pills” didn’t turn up any results. Hashtags of those terms reportedly displayed a message alerting users that the tagged posts, “are hidden because some posts may not follow Instagram’s Community Guidelines.” Gizmodo tried to replicate these findings Tuesday morning but came up with more than 1,000 results for each term.
The NBC report claims at least two abortion resource organizations and at least a dozen Instagram users claimed the photo-sharing app had removed their posts related to abortion on Monday. Those removed posts allegedly varied in terms of content. Some users were allegedly flagged for simply claiming they had access to abortion pills while others were allegedly flagged for offering out-of-state abortion seekers a place to stay. One of the abortion organizations, Abortion Finder, claims Instagram took down their account for four hours for allegedly violating Instagram’s community guidelines on guns, animals, and other regulated goods.
Even under the clearest circumstances, the question of how to treat content related to mailing pharmaceutical drugs poses a challenge for Facebook and any other major platform. While rights groups maintain the easy dissemination of abortion pills could provide a much-needed escape route for women living in states where abortion’s illegal, increasing stories of abuse and accidental misuse involving pharmaceutical drugs incentivize Facebook to take a tough stand on prohibiting drug sales on its platform.
Still, the current approach appears to have resulted in the removal of some posts merely intended to inform users or their medical options rather than attempting to sell any given product. While there’s no shortage of uncertainty surrounding the overturning of Roe, fast and reliable access to information about available medical services has quickly gone from useful to essential.
Shoshana Wodinsky contributed reporting.