Access to information and education related to sexuality and sexual health is essential for everyone, everywhere to protect their health and make informed decisions about their own sexual and reproductive lives. Yet, too often, people of all ages are not getting even the most basic sex ed, and misinformation about sex and sexual health is all too common.
Knowing where to find accurate and reliable information on sexual and reproductive health is not just an issue in Canada. People all over the world have a right to that information and face challenges in accessing it. Here’s what’s in the way, and what we can do about it!
What is the difference between misinformation and disinformation?
Misinformation is information that may be accidentally incorrect or misleading. The facts are not true but there might not have been any intent to mislead. It can look like data or evidence that’s out of date, rumors, or badly remembered things shared by friends. Porn can be an example of misinformation about sexuality and sexual health because it is not meant to educate, but for many it’s seen as one way to learn about sex.
Disinformation is sharing information with the intent to manipulate people. It can look like knowingly sharing information that is incorrect, using biased sources, manipulating facts, or creating misleading narratives. Another way to spread disinformation is to create and share sensational, emotionally charged, or totally fabricated stories to grab people’s attention. When it comes to gender, sexuality, and sexual health, using disinformation to gain support for a cause can be especially common from groups that are anti-abortion or anti-2SLGBTQ+.
Another thing that gets in the way of people getting the information they need is censorship, where people with power (governments, media companies, etc.) work to erase or make unavailable certain kinds of information.
Misinformation and Disinformation Online
Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Google, and YouTube can be great tools for accessing and sharing accurate and reliable sexual health information, and helping to connect people all over the world. They can also help spread misinformation and disinformation. And because misinformation and disinformation get so much engagement (think click-bait and people’s strong reactions and outrage), companies and algorithms are encouraged to spread it more, since engagement boosts ad revenues. Knowing this, some groups have learned how to exploit social media to promote anti-abortion and anti-comprehensive sex-ed messages.
Privacy International’s report, A documentation of data exploitation in sexual and reproductive rights, shows many examples of how social media gets used to promote misinformation and disinformation, including:
- Over 1 million euros spent on anti-choice Facebook ads during the Irish abortion referendum, with some ads coming from groups based in the UK, Hungary, and “other unidentified countries.”
- Google providing “tens of thousands of dollars in free advertising” to an anti-contraceptive and anti-abortion network of crisis pregnancy centres in the United States.
- Ultra-conservative groups using online survey tools to share disinformation about gender identity bills in Chile, or access to reproductive services in Kenya.
Media literacy can be an incredibly useful tool for understanding which resources to pay attention to, and which ones to ignore. For more about media literacy and sexual health, check out our interview with MediaSmarts!
Misinformation and Disinformation from Governments
Governments play a huge role in making sure people can access accurate sexual health information. Decisions from politicians and policy-makers at all levels have a big impact on what people learn or what information they have access to. Depending on the type of government people live under, restrictions on sexual health information or disinformation can be something they’ve experienced their whole lives or can change overnight with a new political party or group coming to power.
The influence of governments can look like:
- Unfunded or underfunding health and/or education sectors, which often puts these sectors in a state of crisis and makes it harder to put time and resources toward sexual health education or sexual health services because everything is urgent.
- Introducing laws or policies that impact things like internet access, school curriculum, libraries, or what kinds of materials people are allowed to publish or read in the media. This can censor useful information and help disinformation flourish.
- Government officials, political parties, or governmental resources and websites sharing disinformation on gender, sexuality, and sexual health, as a way to rally support and impose their views on the public.
Some real-world examples of these influences include:
- The Ministry of Communication in Indonesia blocking and filtering online content, including websites about breast feeding, 2SLGBTQ+ rights, and sites offering abortion care information and telemedical services.
- In Hungary, official government communication has grown increasingly hostile towards LGBTQ+ people in particular, as well as women and those advocating for the rights of marginalised communities, sharing myths and inflammatory stories with the public.
- The Ministry of Education in Mozambique pulling a Grade 7 textbook for containing comprehensive information on sexuality and sexual health.
- In the US, Florida’s governor passing a law that prohibits discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in Kindergarten to Grade 3 classrooms (even though these topics are not part of the state standards for these grades).
These types of laws or actions create barriers for people accessing information and can embolden individuals with strong anti-choice, anti-2SLGTBQI+ and anti-sex-ed sentiments in perpetuating targeted violence (both physical and otherwise) against people representing or seeming to represent those values and communities.
Ways people are fighting Misinformation and Disinformation
The good news is that many groups are taking the issue of misinformation and disinformation seriously. Just this year, at the Human Rights Council, the United Nations adopted a “fake news” resolution, emphasizing the role that governments have in countering false narratives, and urging action. UNESCO also recently released a report titled Balancing Act: Countering Digital Disinformation while respecting Freedom of Expression, encouraging, among other suggestions, collaboration between governments and non-governmental organizations on media and information literacy targeting potentially-vulnerable groups, as well as supporting gender sensitive responses to disinformation.
There are also non-profit and grassroots groups that are doing great work around the world to create, promote, and distribute accurate and reliable sexual health information. To name a few:
- Afrocolectiva is an international collective working to make intersectional anti-racist content widely accessible, including info on abortion and mental health.
- The Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights has been publishing The Watchdog since 1999, a newsletter which is entirely written by youth, to talk about important sexual health topics.
- In Timor-Leste, the Reprodutiva app is helping young women get access to sexual and reproductive health information in a confidential and safe online environment.
- Youth RISE are an international group engaging youth on Full Spectrum Harm Reduction advocacy, addressing things like chemsex and sharing resources for sex workers.
- SocialTIC are a group in Latin America focusing on social change and advocacy by digital technologies and data, and they’re creating resources on preventing and responding to disinformation and smear campaigns, including one in Instagram specifically about abortion.
- Online Abortion Resource Squad (OARS) is a group working to bring accurate, supportive information about abortion to online forums.
What are some other projects from around the world that you’d like to recommend? Share them with us! We all have a responsibility to promote and share accurate and inclusive sexual health information, and this is a great way to start!