What’s appropriate for social media? Canberra Mums and the Abortion Question…

I did give a warning that I was going to get on my soapbox more often! This is one of those times, and I’m afraid it’s a doozy. And has nothing to do with food…

I have debated internally with myself about writing and publishing this post. But I feel someone has to say it.

Canberra Mums is a Facebook page for local mothers and parents to share advice, stories, ideas and recommendations. The page is coordinated by dedicated volunteers who are inundated by hundreds of requests-to-post on a whole range of topics:

  • The whole gamut of parenting, from seeking advice on caring for new babies, to dealing with kids’ behavioural issues or handling school bullying issues;
  • Relationship challenges, from the old ‘how many times a week do you and your partner have sex?’ question, to cheating husbands and legal issues for separating couples;
  • Recommendations for products and services – hairdressers for children, nannies, gardeners, cleaners; or good and bad experiences with local services;
  • Sometimes it’s to rally around a local parent or family in need, to help with money, baby furniture, a job, or even wedding services.

For the most part, it’s a useful, free social media service, which allows people to share information. I often find it useful.

Occasionally, a more serious post appears, perhaps touching on domestic violence, homelessness, or in Thursday’s case, abortion. An anonymous woman, pregnant in her first trimester, asked the readers for information on where in Canberra she could get an abortion, and how much it would cost. I am calling this woman Charlotte. I have no idea what her real name is, but writing ‘Original Poster’ over and over again sounds terribly wordy and impersonal. So Charlotte it is. Charlotte didn’t provide any contextual information about her situation (and nor should she have to). She specifically asked that people did not judge her.

Then a Facebook war began.

A very angry clash between those against abortion, and those defending abortion or telling the former to keep their views to themselves. Some people simply abused Charlotte. They called her selfish. One called her a murderer. Many, including some who were pro-choice, told Charlotte she should not have sent her question to the Canberra Mums page, arguing that it was ‘not appropriate for social media’. They told Charlotte to ‘go Google it’, rather than to inflict her question upon the readers.

Comment reply threads started branching out as people argued amongst themselves. A debate started around Charlotte’s right to seek information using social media about a legal medical procedure, versus the risk of causing distress to readers. People publicly asked the admin team – and so I assume also asked them through the Private Messaging system – for the entire post to be deleted, some because they thought it was inappropriate, and others because they were concerned about the comments. When one thoughtful person highlighted the stress that Charlotte must be under (even before being on the receiving end of cyber-abuse!), another went so far as to suggest that Charlotte might have had abortions many times before, because she didn’t care enough about the risk of getting pregnant to take precautions.

In the midst of these battles, a few people actually answered the question, referring Charlotte to local health services such as Marie Stopes.

Later that day, the entire post and all its comments were deleted. I was worried, and hoped that Charlotte, and anyone else in her situation, had the opportunity to read the (useful, not abusive) answers before they were deleted. (see ‘post update’ at the end of this post for more information provided by Canberra Mums about this post).

Deleting the post is inconsistent with the way that other posts on the same Facebook page are moderated. At the same time as people were getting ugly on Charlotte’s post, they were also getting ugly on another question, one which asked for recommendations on where to get a baby girl’s ears pierced.

The ear-piercing post attracted over 80 comments, with the same dynamic of abuse and defense as Charlotte’s request. Casey commented, ‘this is selfish and disgusting.’ Jenna wrote, ‘this is so wrong. You’re inflicting pain on a newborn baby just for your own aesthetic pleasure. I will never understand why people would do this.’ When reminded that she was not asked for her opinion on ear-piercing, just recommendations on places to do it, Jenna replied: ‘Well then she shouldn’t post things on a public forum on Facebook.’ Although the Canberra Mums page describes itself as ‘a space which is non-judgmental and offers support’, a number of its readers argue that it is a public page, that they have the right to voice their opinion, and people who submit questions should expect it.

Liv captures my thoughts in a nutshell: ‘Here we go again… Hop on board the Canberra Mum’s Judgmental Wagon… ALL ABOARD!’

Now, I totally understand the wide-ranging views and tension people feel about abortion. But I also don’t think they were relevant here. Charlotte, in posting anonymously on a social media forum, must have felt no one else in her life could give her the answers she sought. I can only imagine she felt lonely, and possibly scared. And when she asked for help, a shit-storm was dumped on her.

In contrast with Charlotte’s post about abortion, the post about ear-piercing has not been deleted, even though the comments are just as rude. Deleting Charlotte’s entire post (instead of only the irrelevant and rude comments) must only serve to worsen the shaming and stigmatising of women who seek abortions. It is a terrible shame that Charlotte will no longer have access to the useful responses, and nor will other readers looking for the information. I’d thought we were a little more progressive and respectful than that. That we wouldn’t deem a post about abortion ‘inappropriate’ for social media and public discussion. I’d thought we were beyond the days of the metaphorical home abortion in the back shed.

It reeks of the messy debate about ‘free speech’ that has been played out in recent politics and the media, relating to changing the Racial Discrimination Act in order to support ‘free speech’ and the ‘right to be a bigot’. The free speech argument seems to be one that many readers use in defense of their comments on Canberra Mums: ‘we’ve got the right to say our piece, even if you don’t like it.’ ‘But we also don’t want you posting your question about abortion here…’

Instead of arguing about free speech and who has the right to say what about what; how about simple human decency? To recognising that another human is hurting, and instead of kicking ’em while they’re down; deciding to either refrain from voicing an opinion, or to use our individual power show support, understanding or empathy? Why is it okay to be so mean on social media?

I truly hope Charlotte was able to find the information and support she was looking for. I hope that next time someone asks for help, on Canberra Mums or any other forum, we have the capacity to put our personal views aside and give that person the help they need.

And to Charlotte, or any Charlotte out there who might be reading this, I want you to know that I would give you a hug, if I could.

Update: Upon publishing this post, I contacted Canberra Mums to let them know I had written it, and to invite them to provide a written comment if they wished. They responded immediately to give me some more information about the post, explaining that when Charlotte contacted them, they let her know beforehand that posting the question could result in heated debate, even when asking for no negativity. Canberra Mums also gave Charlotte the contact details for Sexual Health and Family Planning ACT. Charlotte responded and asked them to still post the question.

When the comments started to become severely judgemental, Canberra Mums contacted Charlotte to apologise for the negativity she had received, and to check that she had seen the valid comments before they removed the post, which they were spending a lot of time moderating. They also commented on the post to explain to readers that this was what they were doing, before they deleted the post.

1 Comment

  1. Amanda says:

    Raises interesting issues about how duty of care can be enacted in online communities. We have to accept that people are seeking health information (or support) in online spaces more and more. Im glad that a referral to a health service was provided in the first place, but Im not sure how these issues can be resolved in the future. I suspect investment in more appropriate online health spaces could be a good start (so that these issues do not have to be moralised by a forum that is so broad in scope).

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