When you Google “abortion,” the top results are relatively staid considering the divisiveness of the topic in American life. There’s a link to information about the procedure from Planned Parenthood, a Google map of nearby abortion providers, a link to an overview of anti-abortion and pro-choice arguments from the nonpartisan procon.org, and links to various news sources like the New York Times and the New Yorker.
If, until recently, you did the same over on Google-owned YouTube, it felt like you were searching in a whole other universe. Before I raised the issue with YouTube late last week, the top search results for “abortion” on the site were almost all anti-abortion—and frequently misleading. One top result was a clip called “LIVE Abortion Video on Display,” which over the course of a gory two minutes shows images of a formed fetus’ tiny feet resting in a pool of blood. Several of the top results featured a doctor named Antony Levatino, including one in which he testified to the House Judiciary Committee that Planned Parenthood was aborting fetuses “the length of your hand plus several inches” in addition to several misleading animations that showed a fetus that looks like a sentient child in the uterus. The eighth result was a video from conservative pundit Ben Shapiro, just above a video of a woman self-narrating a blog titled, “Abortion: My Experience,” with text in the thumbnail that reads, “My Biggest Mistake.” Only two of the top 15 results struck me as not particularly political, and none of the top results focused on providing dispassionate, up-to-date medical information.
I emailed YouTube Friday afternoon asking why anti-abortion videos saturated the search results for “abortion,” and if the platform thought accurate, health-focused information had a place there. By Monday morning, before the company got back to me, the search results had changed to include a number of news outlets among the top results, including a video from Vice about how women trying to get abortions are being stymied by anti-abortion centers that masquerade as clinics. The second video was a clip of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee describing his anti-abortion philosophy, and the third was a video titled “Speak Out: Abortion Is Not a Human Right.” By the end of this week, the top results (which are dynamic) included a news segment in Tamil, a video in which the director Penny Marshall (who died this week) “Opens Up on Drugs and Her Abortion,” and a clip of an anti-abortion advocate responding to the abortion-legalization law passed in Ireland. Anti-abortion content meant to enrage or provoke viewers was no longer purely dominating the results, though they still looked very different from the generally more sober Google results.
Why this matters is that more than 1.8 billion people look for information on YouTube every month, and that could easily include someone who is considering getting an abortion, or simply trying to learn about the issue. Deb Hauser, the president of Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit that specializes in youth sexual education, told me she worries that the search results I originally found on YouTube could scare some people into delaying medical care or seeking advice from a doctor.* For the most part, those results gave an inaccurate portrait of what getting an abortion is like. The animation showing an abortion in the first trimester depicts a fetus with extended arms and legs and fully formed facial features, but neglects to note that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about two-thirds of first-trimester abortions happen within the first eight weeks of the pregnancy, when according to the Mayo Clinic, the embryo has formed buds and is only about a half-inch long.
The video then transitions to bullet points outlining the serious risks of getting the procedure, but doesn’t add that major complications are extremely low, and occur less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the time.
There are plenty of videos from credible reproductive health- care providers on YouTube, but none of those videos surfaced in the top 20 results for “abortion”—both before I asked about it and now. One reason for this, according to Becca Lewis, a researcher with Data & Society who studies extremists content on YouTube, might be that YouTube is often seen as a place where people can broadcast and share ideas that aren’t found in mainstream media. “You see people talking about using YouTube to present the ‘other side’ of an issue or story and a lot of times those are conspiracy theories or disinformation,” Lewis said, adding that fringe right groups with political agendas in particular have proven to be very adept at placing keywords in titles and video descriptions to game YouTube’s search engine to make their videos float to the top. Content like graphic abortion videos is also likely to stir anger and other strong emotions—which can lead to high engagement on social platforms, an important ranking signal for search engines—but clearly not the only signal search engines trust. While it’s unlikely Google or YouTube would directly curate such results, they do control what signals their algorithms look for—and that matters a lot for ensuring that viewers encounter reliable and safe information.
It’s not just the top results that are a problem. A lot of viewing on YouTube happens through the platform’s discovery features, which automatically play an algorithmically chosen new video for viewers after they’ve finished their current one. The idea is that users will get more information on topics that interest them—but a growing criticism of the feature is that it directs users to more and more extreme content. With abortion, I found, even fairly nonpolitical videos were quickly followed by more heated content, generally of an anti-abortion bent. One video that came up in my search results this week, after YouTube updated them, was an AJ+ segment in which four women share their abortion experiences. From there, YouTube queued up a video titled “Story time: I had an abortion and KARMA came after me!” A video recommended after watching a BBC video was called “Abortion or Baby: Before You Decide.” It is a seven-minute animation that looks like a simple instructional video, but describes how a fetuses’ body parts are pulled apart by surgical instruments in the womb and half the video is about how marriage and raising the child is probably the best, most fulfilling option for a pregnant woman. After that, YouTube suggests a video called “911-Moans, Screams Heard From Botched Abortion Victim At Carhart’s NE Clinic,” posted by vocal anti-abortion activist Cheryl Sullenger.
YouTube did not address whether and how it tweaked the results for “abortion,” but did tell me it provides “a platform for free speech where anyone can choose to post videos, subject to our Community Guidelines.” It stressed that the company is working to provide more credible news content from its search and discovery algorithms and has given users more ways to fact-check information they may consume on YouTube—for example, by including links to Wikipedia on the bottom of a handful of videos the site about topics that attract conspiracists, like claims that climate change is a hoax or videos questioning whether the Holocaust happened.
When I asked Google about its own search results, a representative said, “When someone types a word into Search, our ranking systems are designed to return relevant results from the most authoritative sources available.” Two search engines, two very different results. Perhaps these corporate siblings ought to spend some more time comparing notes.
Correction, Dec. 27, 2018: Due to an editing error, this article originally misspelled Deb Hauser’s last name.