How to Talk About Abortion on the Internet

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Analysis Abortion

How to Talk About Abortion on the Internet

Emily Crockett

How can pro-choice advocates change the cultural conversation that can help win policy victories? For starters, according to speakers at this year’s Rootscamp, don’t be afraid to say “abortion.”

How can pro-choice advocates change the cultural conversation that can help win policy victories? For starters, don’t be afraid to just say “abortion.”

At this year’s Rootscamp, a conference bringing together about 2,000 progressive activists and strategists, NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue and representatives from the viral content curation site Upworthy talked about their experiments with social media to figure out what would draw the most people into the conversation about reproductive freedom.

Their biggest finding was that phrases like “reproductive freedom” have their limits—if you’re talking about abortion, the presenters said, it’s best to come out and say so.

The staff of Upworthy, which partnered with NARAL to create a pro-reproductive rights vertical called Feminent Domain, ran tests on their content’s headlines, images, share text, and other factors to tease out what would resonate most with readers and inspire them to share with their networks, including people who might not necessarily identify with the pro-choice cause.

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“The term ‘abortion’—can we just put it in a headline? Can we come out and say it? How will the Internet respond to that?” said Upworthy’s Patty Carnevale.

As it turned out, she said, “Being very direct with our audience about what we’re talking about really paid off.” Headlines that spoke more indirectly or euphemistically about abortion did much worse in their testing.

That jibes with other recent data showing huge payoffs from canvassers going door to door to directly share their own abortion stories with people, Hogue said.

“Voters, when you engage them at the door one one one, they don’t know what we mean when we don’t say what we mean,” Hogue said. “If I am talking about abortion and I want you to know what I’m talking about, I am going to say ‘abortion.’ It moves people because they feel like we are being direct with them.”

The other big finding was that in stories that hinge on emotion, compassion draws people in—especially people who think differently than the storyteller.

And snarky cleverness, though it may be therapeutic for embattled social justice writers and be a hit with the base, actually turns a lot of people off because it seems too “insidery” and not inclusive.

Other findings included that it’s OK to joke about abortion since humor is a release and a conversation-starter, and that while it’s fine to have political content, political references may not get more initial clicks; a headline referencing “a dude who hates abortions” did better than talking about an anti-choice “politician,” but less-electioneering terms like “conservative” work OK.

The presenters acknowledged that there’s a difference between online and offline activism, but said that they reinforce each other and have lessons for one another. And the online world is an integral part of culture, which has to change first in order to build political power.

“Politics is the most risk-averse sector that we have,” Hogue said. “One of my observations as a new leader was that we were never going to get the political will that we need if we didn’t actually tackle the cultural question.”