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Disinformation is everywhere — including pregnancy apps

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Like with almost every aspect of our lives, there are apps for parents-to-be to track their pregnancies and learn more about what to expect when they're expecting. These kind of apps put information at a person's fingertips, like how a fetus's size compares to different fruits, daily tips to prepare for birth, personalized articles, informational videos. But as one researcher found, some are also full of dangerous and misleading information. Nina Jankowicz is a disinformation researcher. She delved into the world of pregnancy apps after learning that she was pregnant, and she joins us now to tell us more about what she found.

Hey, Nina.

NINA JANKOWICZ: Hi, Juana. Great to be with you.

SUMMERS: These pregnancy apps are just incredibly popular among expecting parents, and I have to imagine that people who download them - they are not expecting to encounter disinformation. Give us some examples of what that can look like.

JANKOWICZ: I was being peddled to. There was a ton of advertising. I was subscribed immediately to a bunch of mailing lists. I started getting mail in my home. I'm at this point, very, very early in my pregnancy, five weeks or so. About a quarter of women lose their pregnancies at that stage. And there are points where these apps are asking you to register for cord blood banking or start building your registry when you may not even have a viable pregnancy.

Beyond that, the information that they provide is either out of date sometimes - I encountered a ton of out-of-date coronavirus information that was encouraging people to wash all their groceries before they came home - didn't have up-to-date information about vaccines. Or it's just plain misleading - you know, headlines like, "Can You Have Sex While Pregnant?" - which in the disinformation world, we know that those questioning headlines are just clickbait. And so we encourage people to write them a little bit differently, to include the main idea in the headlines.

SUMMERS: You know, not every pregnant person comes to these apps with kind of the body of experience that you have. Your specialty is disinformation. And it makes me wonder, how does the disinformation that you have encountered and that you have studied on these pregnancy apps compare to the political disinformation campaigns that you've studied professionally?

JANKOWICZ: Disinformation is the false or misleading information that is shared with malign intent. And the malign intent here is to make money off of pregnant people. And we can have, you know, disinformation for profit. And we've seen that in the political realm. And we've seen that outside of it, as well, especially with the anti-vaccination rhetoric we've seen during the coronavirus pandemic. So I would say they are one and the same.

SUMMERS: You know, you mentioned COVID-19 misinformation briefly. And I'm just curious, as someone who has been on these apps and used them and scrolled through them, generally speaking, how do they handle misinformation around the pandemic? You know, there has been a lot of talk about pregnancy and COVID-19 and vaccination. Are there any sort of guardrails there?

JANKOWICZ: Not as many guardrails as I would like to see. So a couple of the apps have message boards where parents-to-be can interact and ask questions. And some of those have gotten notoriously bad for anti-vaccination rhetoric. And in fact, one of the leading apps - they have instituted a content moderation policy during COVID-19. I think that is just one step. As people are treating these apps as health resources, you really want them to say, OK, this has been reviewed by a doctor. This is what health bodies in the country are saying. And instead, it seems to me as if the apps really are afraid to anger people and have people delete that app off their phone or not log on in the future, when their first priority should be delivering that information, not keeping us as users.

SUMMERS: What kind of responsibility does the government or these medical associations - what responsibility do they bear in protecting pregnant people from this disinformation?

JANKOWICZ: Well, I'd certainly love to see the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists release a set of rules for the apps who, you know, want to say, OK, we've got ACOG seal of approval. We have followed all the, you know, specific guidelines they've released. I think that would be a first step. But you shouldn't be advertised to quite so heavily when you're expecting a child, particularly for these things that are medically dubious. So I would love to see some oversight introduced in Congress or at the very least, to see better information put out there by our government agencies that deal with health that is accessible and that frankly outranks in Google search results the for-profit marketing schemes that we see these apps putting forward.

SUMMERS: Nina Jankowicz is a disinformation researcher and a global fellow at the Wilson Center.

Thank you so much.

JANKOWICZ: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.