Facebook parent company Meta criticized for making reproductive health an R-rated issue

By Jessie Gretener, CNN

Female reproductive health experts are calling on Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, to rethink its restrictions on reproductive health content.

The company has long faced criticism for removing and restricting female reproductive health information with a prominent report from the Center for Intimacy Justice early last year accusing Meta of systematically rejecting many female and gender diverse reproductive health ads. The CIJ report also accused Meta of having bias algorithms, stating that male reproductive health ads were found to be permitted, including ads that referenced male sexual pleasure.

In bid to combat those concerns, Meta tweaked its “adult products or services” advertising policy last October to include clearer guidelines about reproductive health, clarifying that it allows the promotion of “reproductive health products or services” if the content is targeted to “people aged 18 or older.”

Meta (FB) argues the topic is sensitive, stating that as a global company it needs to take in to account the “wide array of people from different cultures and countries” to “avoid potential negative experiences.”

However, female reproductive experts tell CNN that the advertising policy is still too restrictive and is creating barriers for how younger people around the world access information about female reproductive health issues, including the menstrual cycle, which can start as early as 8 years old.

They argue that censoring content about normal and natural bodily functions plays into the shame that has long plagued how people learn about the female body and hormone cycle. That can hinder how people with uteruses advocate for their bodies in healthcare settings, including obtaining care for misunderstood and underdiagnosed conditions like endometriosis.

Lets talk about p3riods

The practice of censoring female reproductive health content is not unique to Meta, with similar issues reported on other social media platforms. However, Meta is under specific scrutiny for failing to adequately address the issue within its policy updates last year.

The founder and CEO of the Center for Intimacy Justice, Jackie Rotman, told CNN that despite the policy update, Meta’s algorithms still seem to have a problem with female reproductive health content.

“The policy says that reproductive health is allowed, but in practice their technology is still rejecting it,” Rotman said, explaining that images of uteruses are often mistakenly flagged as nudity, and words like period, menopause, endometriosis and vagina also commonly triggering sexually inappropriate warnings.

Rotman outlined that while Meta’s reproductive health guidelines are targeted toward advertising content, unpaid posts are also often being impacted by Meta’s algorithms. She says shadow-banning, which refers to content being partially blocked from certain audiences, is common practice for organic content. Several reproductive health content creators told CNN that they experience shadow-banning, explaining that it is time consuming game of trial and error to determine what is considered too taboo.

Dr. Hazel Wallace, author of “The Female Factor” told CNN she wishes she could be more direct in how she speaks about the female body and hormone cycle, including menstrual health. However, said has learned that “to educate people, you almost have to play the game.”

She says she often experiences shadow banning, with her analytics showing less engagement if she uses words like period. She explained that her team experimented with Meta’s algorithm, finding they could often dodge restrictions by mis-spelling the word period as p3riod.

“We found that it increased engagement because it doesn’t flag your content as being inappropriate to certain audiences,” Wallace outlined.

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