By McKenzie Sadeghi and Valerie Pavilonis | Published on July 25, 2022
In the wake of a surge in public interest in abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court in June reversed its 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion rights ruling, TikTok promised to crack down on content promoting bogus herbal recipes to induce abortions. Nevertheless, a NewsGuard review identified 102 herbal abortion videos that remained on TikTok as of July 19.
They amassed approximately 18.1 million views and 3.3 million likes combined.
When herbal abortion content spiked in late June 2022, TikTok said that it would remove videos that encourage “herbal” or “natural” abortions. A TikTok spokesperson told NewsGuard in mid-July 2022 that videos promoting herbal abortions violate its Community Guidelines, and that such content was being removed from the platform.
However, during a July 2022 review, NewsGuard identified 91 videos about “natural” abortions from this year, 67 of which were posted after the Supreme Court’s June 24, 2022, abortion ruling, and 17 of which were posted after a draft of the opinion was leaked on May 2, 2022. In addition, NewsGuard identified six TikTok videos from 2020 and five from 2021 promoting the same “remedies” that have since garnered millions of views.
Two of the videos NewsGuard flagged were removed by TikTok after NewsGuard inquired about them. However, the rest of the videos remain, and many have racked up thousands — and others, hundreds of thousands — of views.
The posts NewsGuard identified include:
- A June 26, 2022, video with 738,000 views that starts with the statement, “Foods that can cause a miscarriage!” and lists papaya, sesame seeds, and fish high in mercury.
- A June 25, 2022, video with 268,000 views that includes the hashtags #roevwade and #womenpower, and ends with “Do you wanna know a secret??? Mugwort tea and vitamin C.”
- A June 25, 2022, video with 12,600 views that provides a longer list of herbs and states: “ATTN UTERUS HOLDERS save for later to make tea if u need an ab0rtion: tansy, thuia, safflower, scotch broom, rue, angelica, MUGWORT, wormwood, yarrow, eo of pennyroyal, or OREGANO PINEAPPLE AND PAPAYA IN THE EARLY DAYS.”
NewsGuard’s investigation also found that one reason that TikTok remains fertile ground for dangerous herbal abortion content is that herbal abortion purveyors are able to easily bypass TikTok’s moderation by deploying widely used strategies such as the use of code words.
Codewords and Deliberate Misspellings Thwart TikTok’s ‘System’
One tactic used to bypass TikTok’s moderation systems, known as “leetspeak,” refers to the deliberate misspelling of words or replacing of letters with special characters to avoid detection. For example, NewsGuard found that a search on TikTok for the term “natural abortion” yields no content and generates a “No results found” message. However, a search for “natural ab0rti0n” and “natural aborshun” both yielded hundreds of results. Likewise, a search for “herbal abortion” prompted a “No results found” message, but “herbal aborshun” yielded hundreds of videos.