This month, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Rossalyn Warren entitled “Facebook Is Ignoring Anti-Abortion Fake News.” In the piece, Warren expresses displeasure over the fact that articles from pro-life websites such as LifeNews.com and LiveAction.org are frequently shared on Facebook, while abortion-related stories from mainstream-media outlets apparently receive less online attention. Warren applauds Facebook’s efforts to censor articles that are hoaxes, generated by spammers, or written with a clear profit incentive. But Warren also calls on Facebook to explicitly censor content from pro-life news outlets because she believes such articles spread “misinformation.”
There is plenty to criticize about Warren’s piece. First, she provides no evidence that pro-life websites run stories that are factually inaccurate. Certainly some articles rely on anecdotes and some engage issues – such as the abortion–breast cancer link — about which there exists scholarly debate. But Life News, Life Site News, and Live Action make no effort to disguise their ideological leanings. Online viewers certainly account for this when they read those articles, and surely those sites receive so much traffic in part because mainstream media outlets rarely publish news or commentary that even bothers to include pro-life perspectives.
An article recently published in the journal Contraception is instructive on this point. The authors interviewed 31 progressive journalists who frequently report on abortion-related issues. During the interviews, over a third of the journalists admitted that they felt no need to present “pro-life” and “pro-choice” arguments with equal weight. Instead, these reporters felt it was their responsibility to address differences in merit between the two sides. Of course, in practice this often means entirely ignoring pro-lifers. While pro-life spokespeople tend to be quoted from time to time in political stories about abortion, the useful perspective of pro-life researchers is almost always ignored when policy developments occur or when new studies on these topics are published.
Warren’s notion that mainstream-media outlets present unbiased information on life issues is truly laughable. For instance, in 2006, the New York Times ran a front-page story claiming — based on a superficial analysis of state-level abortion data — that six recently passed pro-life parental-involvement laws were ineffective at lowering abortion rates among minors. The article all but ignored the 15 peer-reviewed studies in academic journals finding that parental-involvement laws reduce minors’ abortion rates.
Furthermore, in 2016, New York Times columnist Gail Collins claimed that funding cuts to Planned Parenthood resulted in an increase in the unintended-pregnancy rate in Texas. But Collins’s source was George Washington University law professor Sara Rosenbaum, who in fact wrote a study predicting an increase in the unintended-pregnancy rate; Rosenbaum provided no data indicating that such an increase had actually occurred. When this was brought to the attention of Collins and Rosenbaum, neither took steps to issue a correction.
Overall, the development of Facebook and other social-media sites has been beneficial to pro-lifers, making it easier for them to organize online. These sites have also made it far easier for the pro-life movement to bypass mainstream media and disseminate news and commentary on a range of life issues. Americans of all political stripes benefit when there is rich and open debate about issues of public concern. Facebook and other social media sites should recognize this and take a clear stance in favor of free speech, resisting the urge to censor articles and opinion pieces simply because of their ideological content.