Instagram Fumbles in Its Moderation of Abortion Content

Queenie Wong Former Senior Writer
Queenie Wong was a senior writer for CNET News, focusing on social media companies including Facebook's parent company Meta, Twitter and TikTok. Before joining CNET, she worked for The Mercury News in San Jose and the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. A native of Southern California, she took her first journalism class in middle school.
Expertise I've been writing about social media since 2015 but have previously covered politics, crime and education. I also have a degree in studio art. Credentials
  • 2022 Eddie award for consumer analysis
Queenie Wong
4 min read
Instagram logo on a phone in front of a pink background

Instagram has more than 1 billion monthly active users.

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What's happening

Instagram inadvertently labeled some posts about abortion rights as sensitive content, frustrating users of the popular photo-and-video sharing service. The company blamed the problem on a bug that it said has now been fixed.

Why it matters

Meta-owned Instagram's content moderation decisions around the topic of abortion have raised questions about whether the service is properly enforcing its rules.

Becca Rea-Tucker shared a photo of a pink cake she had baked bearing the message "pro-abortion" in white icing with her 252,000 Instagram followers. 

As Instagram users started to repost the cake photo, the Texas author and baker learned on Tuesday that Instagram had labeled the photo as "sensitive" for possibly containing "graphic or violent content." Others told Rea-Tucker Instagram had hidden the photo behind a warning and asked them to verify their age.

"I do think that Instagram's algorithm suppresses accounts like mine that are vocally pro-abortion," she said. "It's really disappointing, but definitely not surprising."

Instagram marks a photo of pink cake with the message "pro-abortion" as "sensitive."

Becca Rea-Tucker posted an Instagram story about how the company moderated a photo of a cake with a "pro-abortion" message.

Screenshot by Queenie Wong/CNET

Rea-Tucker isn't the only Instagram user who thinks the social network, owned by Facebook parent company Meta, is restricting abortion rights content. On Tuesday, Instagram tweeted that content was inadvertently being labeled as sensitive when it shouldn't have been. The company blamed the problem on a bug that it said Wednesday had now been fixed.

Since the Supreme Court's decision last week to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that protected abortion rights, Instagram has been flooded by people voicing their opinions about the topic. Some are sharing resources for people seeking to learn about abortions. The social network, however, appears to have stumbled under the wave of content, making moderation decisions that have raised questions about whether Instagram is properly enforcing its rules.

CNET found multiple examples of what appears to be content erroneously flagged as sensitive. Instagram labeled a post by Planned Parenthood Great Northwest, Hawaii, Alaska, Indiana, Kentucky for potentially containing violent or graphic content. The label covered a text-and-map graphic that indicates abortion is safe and legal in Hawaii, Alaska and Washington.

Instagram spokeswoman Stephanie Otway said the bug impacted content other than posts about abortion rights. When asked for examples, she pointed to a post about guns that Instagram had mistakenly marked as sensitive.

Otway declined to say how many users were affected by the bug or provide more details. 

Meta is grappling with other content moderation challenges. Vice reported on Monday that Facebook was banning users who say they will mail abortion pills. On Tuesday, NBC News reported Instagram restricted searches for "abortion pills" and the abortion pill mifepristone. After NBC published the article, Instagram unblocked the hashtags for "abortion pills" and "mifepristone." 

Meta spokesman Andy Stone tweeted Monday that users aren't allowed to "buy, sell, trade, gift, request or donate pharmaceuticals" on the platform but content "that discusses the affordability and accessibility of prescription medication is allowed."

Still, he acknowledged the social media giant is making content moderation mistakes.

"We've discovered some instances of incorrect enforcement and are correcting these," Stone said.

Lack of transparency

Instagram labeled a post by Planned Parenthood Great Northwest, Hawai'i, Alaska, Indiana, Kentucky as "sensitive content."

Instagram labeled a post of a graphic by Planned Parenthood Great Northwest, Hawaii, Alaska, Indiana, Kentucky as "sensitive content." 

Screenshot by Queenie Wong/CNET

Instagram users said they don't know how to contact the site when their posts have been mislabeled, making it tough for them to get rid of a screen placed over their content. Some didn't know that Instagram had commented on the problem. Others said they suspected posts were being mistakenly flagged by Instagram's automated technology, but they didn't alert the company because they had other priorities. 

Asha Dahya, a freelance producer, author and podcast host in California, said she shared a poster to promote the upcoming release of a short documentary about abortion she filmed in 2020. The poster for Someone You Know features an illustration of three women, one of whom is holding a clock.

An animator who worked on the film shared the poster in an Instagram story, a post that vanishes in 24 hours. Instagram marked the story as potentially containing graphic and violent content. 

CNET saw the sensitive content label over the story on Tuesday afternoon, though it was later removed.

"I've never had a warning being slapped on any of my stories or posts, so it just felt a little too coincidental given the timing of Roe v. Wade being overturned," Dahya said. 

Dahya didn't know how to alert Instagram about the error, so she shared the problem on Twitter.

Kelsey Rhodes, interim director of communications for advocacy group Physicians for Reproductive Health in Missouri, pointed to other posts on Instagram about abortion that appear to be mislabeled, including a news article and one asking users to donate to a nonprofit that aims to help people travel to access abortion. Given how poorly social networks have done in combating misinformation about abortion, Rhodes found the mislabeling "alarming."

"When we actually share the facts -- the evidence-based information about abortion and the community-centered information about abortion -- that's what they choose to block," she said.

On Sunday, Instagram pulled down the account for Abortion Finder, a site that lets people search for abortion service providers in the US. Bedsider, a project of Power to Decide, operates Abortion Finder.

Jennifer Johnsen, vice president of digital programs and education for Power to Decide, said Abortion Finder's Instagram account was down for about four hours before Instagram reinstated it. 

Instagram never told the group why the account was pulled down or was brought back after appealing the decision.

"It would be helpful to know why," Johnsen said. "From our point of view, we didn't break any of their rules."