Disability advocate and mom of three Natalie Weaver had a particularly rough week last week, thanks to an acerbic duo of social media trolls and right-wing news outlets. What began as a simple request for Twitter to suspend an account harassing Natalie and her disabled daughter snowballed into Fox News and others co-opting her story to fit their anti-abortion agenda.
Weaver’s 9-year-old daughter Sophia is severely disabled. She has Rett syndrome, which robs her of the ability to speak, walk, eat, or even breathe easily, as well as an unknown syndrome that causes facial deformities. Sophia has endured over 20 surgeries, countless hospitalizations, and requires around-the-clock care, much of which is accessible because of a group of Medicaid programs called home and community based services. Because of this, Weaver has publicly taken on the GOP as a very outspoken advocate for Medicaid and health care, which has unfortunately opened her up to numerous social media attacks.
One such assault was especially cruel. For weeks, a Twitter user was circulating an image of Sophia with the following message: “It is okay to think that every child matters however a lot of them do not hence the amnio test which should be a mandatory test and if it proves negative and the woman does not want to abort then all bills accrued after that is on her and the father.”
An amnio test, short for amniocentesis, is a prenatal test that removes amniotic fluid from the sac around a fetus in order to test for fetal abnormalities.
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As any mother would, Weaver reported the account and called on others to do the same. Time and again, Twitter found no violation of its rules.
So she doubled her efforts, this time calling out Twitter for its lack of response. It worked—Twitter eventually suspended the account—but not before right-wing news sites caught on, twisting Weaver’s pain and anguish to fit their anti-abortion narrative.
First, Fox News reported on the story, strategically placing the article on its homepage around the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, accompanied with a tagline that read, “pro-abortion hate.” Other outlets soon followed suit—using inflammatory headlines like, “For Proof Abortion Is Inhumane, Look No Further Than Supporters’ Defenses Of Killing Disabled People”—intentionally conflating one person’s pro-eugenics tweets with the entire pro-choice movement.
It is important to note that the Twitter user who used Weaver’s daughter’s photo did not publicly identify as pro-choice (they did, however, identify as a Trump supporter). But the right-wing outlets negligently reported otherwise, manufacturing an emotionally charged debate and adding stress to Weaver’s already fraught experience.
“I immediately felt upset, angry, and used. I also felt afraid because I knew they were trying to appeal to their hard right base with such divisive rhetoric,” Weaver told Rewire. “I knew they’d seek me out, realize I wasn’t one of them and that it would open me up to more attacks.”
And that’s precisely what happened. Once the publications’ readers discovered that Natalie is in fact a pro-choice Democrat, she experienced an uptick in online hate targeting her. “People were taunting me, saying I deserved it because of my political beliefs,” Weaver said. Indeed, one Facebook user repeatedly harassed Weaver, saying “She runs with the same people who advocate for the murder of her own child!!!”
These responses were particularly biting, given that Weaver made a concerted effort not to politicize this incident. “I made it a point to not mention that [the original] troll is a Trump supporter and that most of my hate comes from hardcore Trump supporters,” Weaver said. “I didn’t want to make this about politics, I just wanted it to be about Twitter doing the right thing by taking down that vile post.”
Weaver’s outrage over the pro-eugenics troll had nothing to do with abortion or politics, and everything to do with the targeted harassment of her child. And make no mistake: Those right-wing outlets didn’t misunderstand why Weaver was angry. They intentionally leveraged a mother’s emotional distress to push an anti-abortion narrative.
Twitter’s rules against hateful conduct forbid harassment against people with disabilities, but the social media company’s reporting tool doesn’t include disability as an option when reporting an offensive tweet. Currently, Twitter only specifies gender, race, religion, and “orientation” as targeted harassment categories.
This experience has prompted Weaver to call on Twitter to expressly include disabilities in its reporting function, and to encourage journalists to do better when reporting on stories like hers.
Indeed, the media has a responsibility to counter stigma and misinformation, and to help raise awareness of disability issues—especially as our government continues to carry out attacks on people with disabilities. These journalists had an opportunity to use Weaver’s story to draw much-needed attention to broader, but related topics, such as cyberbullying and targeted harassment of persons with disabilities, but they intentionally missed the mark, opting instead to perpetuate dangerous stereotypes of the entire pro-choice movement.
“I recommend reaching out to the person(s) you are writing about, and talk to them, focus on the story and do not add false information to fit your narrative,” she said. “Don’t twist a story to create further division when division is already at an all-time high.”