The Anti-Choice Propaganda Playbook: Five Tactics To Look Out For in 2020
The anti-choice movement actively uses social media platforms to communicate and organize with its members. Sites such as Twitter and Facebook provide opportunities for movement leaders to test the effectiveness of anti-choice narratives before promoting their claims to a wide audience. As part of the NARAL research department, we monitor the public statements of major anti-choice organizations and individuals and track how these narratives evolve over time. Here are some of the most notable anti-choice narrative trends from this past quarter:
Tactic #1: Co-Opting Feminism
After a volatile summer of extreme anti-choice legislation sparked scrutiny and public outrage, anti-choice leaders increasingly attempted to co-opt feminist language to deflect further criticism. They frequently claimed (counterintuitively) that restricting reproductive freedom empowers women, that notable feminists from history were anti-choice (though their most common arguments have been repeatedly debunked), and that abortion access actually perpetuates gender inequality and oppression. Even the official theme of March for Life 2020, “Life Empowers: Pro-Life is Pro-Woman,” announced in October, followed this narrative.
This trend is a reversion to an old anti-choice messaging tactic that claims it’s possible to be “pro-woman” while working against women’s actual freedoms. It emphasizes a narrow definition of femininity, venerating women who occupy traditional gender roles while attacking or erasing women who make different decisions. It also relies heavily on disinformation.
Tactic #2: Working the Refs at Social Media Companies
Much like the broader conservative movement, anti-choice activists have found that aggressive and unrelenting accusations of liberal bias in media and on social media can push outlets to be overly deferential to their conservative critics — and even give them preferential treatment. In late 2019, anti-choice activists continued their long-term effort to work the refs at social media companies by frequently claiming that companies like Twitter and Facebook intentionally censor anti-choice content and promote pro-choice content. Their accusations typically revolved around instances where examples of anti-choice misinformation had been accurately fact-checked, or anti-choice content had been removed for other rule violations.
For example, this September, Live Action and SBA List condemned Facebook for removing a video of Lila Rose stating “abortion is never medically necessary,” after the claim was determined to be false by a third-party fact-checker. (NOTE: This claim constitutes medical disinformation, as determined by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.)They also activated conservative U.S. Senators to promote their claims of “censorship,” who addressed a critical open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, to promote their claims of “censorship.”.
SBA List remains of the most vocal advocates for preferential treatment of conservatives online. Most recently, they called for Twitter to censor Planned Parenthood, NARAL, EMILY’s List, and other prominent pro-choice groups.
Tactic #3: Misleading the Public and Moving the Goal Posts
In early 2019, in the wake of Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court and in expectation of a future ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, anti-choice activists ramped up their attacks on reproductive freedoms, eventually embracing fact-free claims that pro-choice advocates support “infanticide” or murder babies after birth. Though murder was already unquestionably illegal, they spent much of the year promoting legislation proposed by Senator Ben Sasse that would interfere with patient care and could criminalize doctors while doing nothing to change laws against murder. Using New York State’s Reproductive Freedom Act — which ensures access to needed care throughout pregnancy when a woman’s health or life is endangered, or their pregnancy is not viable — anti-choice politicians and organizations launched a full-scale disinformation campaign.
On September 10th, House Republicans held an unofficial hearing to again elevate a version of Sasse’s proposal. Anti-choice leaders promoted the stunt with the #EndInfanticide hashtag, which briefly trended on Twitter, furthering the false narrative. This is the same false narrative Trump pushed in his 2019 State of the Union address.
Other instances of this ongoing disinformation campaign include claims that infanticide is not already illegal and needs to be banned, that Democrats are advocating for abortion “up until” and “even after birth,” and the persistent canard that the Democratic presidential candidates all support infanticide. These attempts to peddle disinformation also intentionally conflated abortion later in pregnancy with post-birth palliative care.
As the 2020 legislative session kicks off, we continue to see this dangerous disinformation spread through state bills being introduced in several states. However, we will continue to monitor whether anti-choice organizations will double-down or shy away from this false narrative. Interestingly, Live Action has increasingly distanced themselves from the language of “infanticide.” Since September 2019, neither Live Action nor Lila Rose have tweeted the phrase.
Tactic #4: A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing — Posing As A Civil Rights Movement
Beginning in October, several anti-choice organizations began working to subvert widespread public support for reproductive freedom by pushing claims that abortion, rather than anti-choice laws, is discriminatory. In particular, they framed abortion as “lethal discrimination.” This narrative echoes their past arguments that abortion is “discrimination in the womb.”
By the fall of 2019, major anti-choice organizations including Live Action and Susan B. Anthony List appears to have adopted the language of “lethal discrimination” in their campaign against reproductive freedom.
Tactic #5: I Know I Am, But What Are You?
Many of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have stated their strong support of reproductive freedom for all Americans. Though 7 in 10 Americans support reproductive freedom, the anti-choice movement has chosen to disingenuously cast Democrats as extremists. And despite pro-choice candidates’ overwhelming success in the 2018 and 2019 elections, anti-choice activists continue to insist that a commitment to reproductive freedom from all the leading Democratic presidential candidates will cost them the general election.
In a primary rife with questions of “electability,” conservative outlets aim to portray reproductive freedom as a losing issue. Despite copious polling showing the popularity of policies to safeguard reproductive rights, anti-choice activists would like the public to believe that these stances are “out of touch” with most Americans’ views and will alienate a crucial voting block.
Monitoring the evolution of anti-choice narratives on social media provides invaluable insight for the fight for reproductive freedom. Historically, the narratives formally adopted by influential anti-choice organizations and individuals begin on sites like Twitter and Facebook and filter down to the rest of their movement. The reproductive freedom movement’s capacity to combat anti-choice propaganda requires being prepared for the types of arguments that may come our way. As we approach a crucial election year, the importance of this research cannot be understated.
As news generation and consumption migrates from traditional outlets to tech platforms, the traditional gatekeepers who once flagged disinformation are noticeably absent. In 2020, it’s critical that we be even more vigilant in pushing back on emerging disinformation narratives that aim to attack our freedoms.