Sixty-one percent of American adults turn to the Internet for health information, according to the Pew Research Center. And with stigmatized topics like abortion, the Internet can be a particularly important resource when other information sources are inaccessible
Research results published by UC Berkeley School of Public Health researchers in May 2020 tracked Google search data across all 50 states, showing that residents of states with limited access to contraceptives and high rates of unplanned pregnancies are more likely to turn to the internet for information about abortion. Across the US, there are an estimated 18 million Google searches on abortion each year year, including searches for the “abortion pill,” a series of two types of medication (mifepristone and misoprostol) that medically terminate a pregnancy.
New research from UC Berkeley School of Public Health researchers published in the journal PLOS One on January 21, 2021 evaluates webpage search results for popular abortion and birth control search queries, including the term “abortion pill”. The study looked at top US webpage results to queries about the abortion pill in 2018 and assessed the quality of those webpages using a comprehensive, evidence-based Family Planning Webpage Quality Assessment Tool (FPWQAT).
The FPWQAT tool assigns a quality score for each web page to determine the extent to which it provided accurate and usable information.
The researchers found that of the top five web pages resulting from the search term “abortion pill,” only the plannedparenthood.com webpage scored above 80% on the FPWQAT when accounting for both quality of information and user experience.
The other four top webpages—a Wikipedia.com page and three anti-abortion information webpages—scored much lower on the FPWQAT (14%-43%).
“Based on research about click-through rates for Google webpage results, we can infer that almost half of estimated click-throughs led to plannedparenthood.com, a reliable source of abortion pill information. All other top webpage results provided lower quality information in less useable formats, and three of five presented disinformation aligned with the anti-abortion interests of the website owners,” said Berkeley Public Health doctoral candidate and lead study author Elizabeth Pleasants. “The challenges of disinformation online are widespread and of growing concern, as the impacts become strikingly apparent related to COVID-19 and the 2020 election,”
The researchers hope that their work can push policymakers to make sure online information commonly presented to the public is accurate and accessible.
“Healthcare providers and consumers must be informed of online abortion pill content that is not based in current clinical evidence, while advocates and policymakers should push for online information that is credible and useable,” said Pleasants. “Promoting digital and eHealth literacy skills, as well as advocating for changes in the promotion of search results in Google to support consumer access to quality information, are vital steps to support reproductive justice and informed choice.”
The research team intends to continue with this work tracking the trustworthiness of online health information and is also bringing in the next generation of researchers.
“Our team has begun a data science class to teach more undergraduate students this methodology so that we can continue to track trustworthy and untrustworthy websites online for a variety of topics,” said study co-author Sylvia Guendelman, Berkeley Public Health professor and Maternal, Child, and Adolescent Health Program Chair.