In the wake of the June 2022 Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v Wade, Bloomberg reporters turned their attention to the ways Google and other companies provide pregnant people with medical resources and information.
These businesses use complicated algorithms to determine which ads and other information to present, in what order and in response to what types of search commands. People look for reproductive health care information under sometimes high-pressure circumstances that are all the more fraught when those people reside in places where procedures are criminalized.
This series cut through the complexity of algorithms to pinpoint – and explain in clear terms – what happens in those very moments. Specifically, what information is provided to whom, in what order, and in what places? Who is profiting from the way that information is presented? What players are gaming the system behind the scenes to influence search outcomes?
One story used data from tests in all 50 states to show that, in many abortion searches, Google Maps led users to crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), non-medical organizations that seek to persuade women not to get abortions. Bloomberg rounded out the reporting through interviews with 33 abortion providers, CPCs, rights advocates and abortion seekers. In response, Google Maps revised its service to more carefully identify facilities providing licensed reproductive care.
Google has long collected fees from anti-abortion organizations that pay to have ads appear alongside searches for abortions, creating confusion. Joint analysis by Bloomberg and the Center for Countering Digital Hate showed that, while Google has tried to more clearly show whether advertisers provide abortion services, in many cases, Google still doesn’t affix the labels to ads for CPCs. Lawmakers later urged Google to amend its practices, citing our analysis.
Another story explored ways CPCs spread what health professionals say is harmful misinformation and capture data on people who search online for abortion-related information. Our research found that in certain pregnancy- and abortion-related searches, Snapchat often led users to anti-abortion clinics. Snapchat removed dozens after being contacted by Bloomberg. Bloomberg also provided examples of misinformation disseminated on social media and highlighted risks that personal data collected online could be used against people seeking abortions.
Bloomberg also presented its findings in visually compelling ways:
— an interactive map that indicates the states where CPCs figure prominently in abortion-related Google Map search results
— an interactive quiz that demonstrates how difficult it can be to distinguish between websites for CPCs and abortion providers
— a graphic to help readers spot differences
— a graphic that shows Google’s failure to add labels telling users whether an advertiser doesn’t provide abortion services
— a video that clearly shows Google’s failure to add such labels on many searches.
In a year marked by the seismic overturning of Roe v. Wade, Bloomberg’s work stands as a brilliant, impactful example of accountability tech journalism, challenging the world’s most influential digital corporations and highlighting the tangible harm they can cause. The reporting, elevated by engaging visuals and interactives, illustrates how the ongoing struggle for reproductive health extends beyond courts and capitols, with data, digital ads and the platforms we use every day turned into a new battlefront.