Special Report: Videos Promoting Dangerous Herbal Abortions Continue To Circulate on TikTok Despite Platform's Pledge To Crack Down, NewsGuard Finds

Misinformation purveyors are using rudimentary techniques to bypass TikTok’s moderation systems

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.

Herbal abortion purveyors on TikTok have been able to avoid detection by deliberately misspelling words or replacing letters with special characters, a tactic known as "leetspeak." (Screenshot via NewsGuard)

Another strategy is to bury herbal abortion methods in the middle of unrelated text, so that the main purpose of the video — to spread the abortion information — is not immediately apparent. For example, a June 24, 2022, TikTok video with more than 4,400 views stated: “I really wanna get my nose pierced” and ended with: “Anyone know where to get one done?” In between those statements, however, the video stated: “mugwart [sic] tea and vitamin c help with natural ab0rti0ns, fyi.” 

Other TikTok users hide their promotion of home remedies by phrasing their messages as fake warnings. For example, a video from June 25, 2022, with 198,000 views states, “Guys plz don’t drink mugworts tea 😥 it can lead to a miscarriage,” and includes “#womensrights #roevwade” in its description.

A video from June 27, 2022, states, “Guys remember mugwort may cause a miscarriage, induce menstruation, & cause your uterus to contract. Get in contact with your local herb store to see where to avoid this herb.” This video garnered over 9,000 views.

A TikTok spokesperson told NewsGuard that the platform is redirecting relevant search terms related to natural abortions, such as “#pennyroyalteaabortion” to its Community Guidelines.  (Pennyroyal is a flowering plant that was used in folk medicine, notably for the treatment of gynecological ailments.)

Indeed, NewsGuard found that typing “#pennyroyalteaabortion” yields a “No results found,” message, along with a message stating, “This phrase may be associated with behavior or content that violates our guidelines. Promoting a safe and positive experience is TikTok’s top priority. For more information, we invite you to review our Community Guidelines.”

However, NewsGuard also found that while searching for some terms directly on the platform yields no results, an identical search using Google allows users to bypass TikTok’s content moderation and freely access the videos on TikTok’s website.

For example, the search term “Herbal abortion” — which is blocked on TikTok’s app and website — can be accessed simply by typing in the phrase “Herbal abortion TikTok” on Google — which results in a page showing the term’s overall view count of 792 million as well as 10 videos, related hashtags, and usernames of content creators who have posted videos related to the terms. 

While searching for "herbal abortion" on TikTok's website or app redirects to the platform's Community Guidelines, searching the phrase "Herbal abortion TikTok" on Google results in a TikTok page showing related content, allowing users to bypass moderation policies. (Screenshots via NewsGuard)

Similarly, using the same strategy allows users to access “Natural abortion” and “Mugwort abortion” videos, which have 9.7 billion and 5 billion views, respectively. While NewsGuard found that not all of these videos advocated for herbal abortions — in fact, some specifically advised against them — a significant number still promoted such methods.

Out of the 102 videos identified by NewsGuard, 10 of them encouraged viewers to buy products from Amazon, particularly mugwort tea. Google trend data shows spikes in searches for “mugwort,” and “diy abortion,” both at the time of the leaked Supreme Court abortion decision and its official release.

Medical experts strongly discourage women from seeking out herbal remedies to induce an abortion. “There are no herbal remedies, period, that are safe and effective for inducing an abortion or preventing pregnancy,” Ryan Marino, a medical toxicologist at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, told The Associated Press on July 1, 2022.

While some “remedies,” such as Vitamin C, are typically not dangerous, others pose a serious risk to users. For example, according to MedlinePlus, a website run by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, evidence suggests that while pennyroyal oil can cause the uterus to contract — thereby ending a pregnancy — the “dose needed in order to cause an abortion could kill the mother or cause life-long kidney and liver damage.”

The misinformation on TikTok is not limited to potentially dangerous and unproven natural abortion remedies. From the COVID-19 pandemic to the Russia-Ukraine war, NewsGuard analyses consistently show that TikTok users can easily bypass the platform’s moderation systems.

In September 2021, TikTok reported 1 billion active monthly users, 60 percent of whom are Generation Z, according to data from ad agency Wallaroo Media.