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Google and Yelp disable reviews on some crisis pregnancy center pages amid activist 'spam' campaign

Activists at Gen-Z for Change noticed they could not leave reviews after they launched a campaign to flood the pages of crisis pregnancy centers.
Image: An exam room
Planned Parenthood locations on Google, some of which provide abortions, also had their buttons removed.Angela Weiss / AFP - Getty Images

Google and Yelp appear to have disabled the ability to post reviews for some crisis pregnancy centers listed on the platforms, which some activists say could prevent them from providing accurate information about the centers, which are known for trying to persuade women seeking abortions not to get them. Google appears to have also disabled the ability to post reviews of some abortion providers, like Planned Parenthood.

The suspension of the ability to post reviews was first noticed by members of the progressive youth activist group Gen-Z for Change, which launched an initiative called S.A.F.E.R. — or Spam, Assist, Fund, Educate, and Register — on Tuesday.

The initiative encouraged people to flood anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers and anti-abortion tip lines with reviews and comments, using one of several versions of prepared text explaining that a business is "not an abortion clinic" to provide transparency about what services the centers actually provide, according to the S.A.F.E.R. website. The S.A.F.E.R. site allowed users to run a script that would automatically leave countless reviews on the crisis pregnancy center pages on Yelp.

Crisis pregnancy centers have sometimes used questionable methods to market themselves to young people who become pregnant.

Crisis pregnancy centers often disguise themselves as places where people can receive abortions in order to coerce and pressure them not to terminate their pregnancies, according to Planned Parenthood. On several platforms, searches for pregnancy care or abortion services yield results that include crisis pregnancy centers without distinguishing them from medical facilities that provide abortion, among other services.

Sean Wiggs, a digital strategy associate for Gen-Z for Change, first noticed Thursday that Yelp and Google had disabled the ability to leave reviews for many of the organizations.

As of Thursday, the button to leave a review appeared to have been disabled for any crisis pregnancy center labeled a "pregnancy care center" on Google. It was not immediately clear what factors caused a center's review button to be removed. Some centers viewed by NBC News, which were not labeled as "pregnancy care centers," still had review buttons. It is not clear when the review buttons were disabled; some “pregnancy care centers” had reviews posted as recently as two weeks ago. NBC News conducted searches for numerous crisis pregnancy centers in different states using various internet service providers and proxy servers, which all yielded similar results.

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“It feels like the Yelps and the Googles are taking the side of the crisis pregnancy center over those actually seeking abortion,” Wiggs said.

“It’s more disbelief that they would pre-emptively get in the way of people leaving reviews. It’s not like the reviews are inaccurate. ... It’s merely listing the services they actually provide at these crisis pregnancy centers,” Wiggs said.

Buttons were also disabled on Planned Parenthood locations on Google, some of which do provide abortions. Old reviews on the anti-abortion centers, some of which explained that the businesses do not provide abortion, are still visible. However, not all crisis pregnancy centers on Google have existing reviews that explain that they do not provide abortions.

On June 17, 20 Democratic House members and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., sent a letter urging Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google's parent company, Alphabet, to fix Google's accuracy for searches of abortion providers. Shortly after, on June 28, the letter was sent, New York Attorney General Letitia James’s office sent a letter to Google expressing concern about Google Maps’ failing to distinguish between abortion providers and crisis pregnancy centers.

“New Yorkers, and others traveling to the state, should trust that Google Maps will provide accurate information and direct them to real and safe care,” James said in a statement on June 29.

In 2018, Google said it would look into the issue, according to the news release from James’ office. In 2019, Google said it had begun using human analysts to decipher “which facilities offer abortion and those that work to interfere with a pregnant persons’ decision.” James’ statement said a recent test showed the problem still persisted.

Google's support page states that businesses and organizations that want to advertise to those seeking abortions must be certified by Google and show in-ad disclosures about whether they do or do not provide abortions.

On Yelp, review sections were temporarily disabled for organizations tagged as "faith-based crisis pregnancy centers" and "crisis pregnancy centers." When people tried to leave reviews, a box would appear saying the "business recently received increased public attention in the news, which often means people come to this page to post their views on the news rather than a first-hand consumer experience."

The statement goes on to say that the ability to post about the business is temporarily disabled and that those who would like to post about their experiences should check back later.

When a user views the existing reviews, a similar notification appears, warning the viewer that the business had received increased attention. However, users are still able to view old reviews, some of which explain that the crisis pregnancy center does not provide abortion.

Some of the clinics with disabled reviews on Yelp do not have existing reviews that explain that they do not provide abortions.

A Yelp spokesperson said that the company "condemns any attempts to mislead people seeking out abortion care" and that when a clinic "does not provide abortion services, the business is re-categorized as either 'Crisis Pregnancy Centers' or 'Faith-based Crisis Pregnancy Centers.'"

"Since July 5, we’ve seen a large influx of reviews on crisis pregnancy center businesses pages across the U.S. that do not reflect genuine consumer experiences, and instead are statements of ideological stances," the spokesperson said in a statement. "Yelp’s Content Guidelines require that all reviews be based on genuine, first-hand consumer experiences, even in situations where we may agree with other views expressed in these reviews."

Yelp's guidelines do not allow users to post reviews "that focus overwhelmingly on non-consumer issues, such as a business’s political ideology."

Olivia Julianna, a political strategist for Gen-Z for Change and an abortion rights activist, said in an interview over text message that the organization launched S.A.F.E.R. with the mission to ensure that all people in the U.S. have access to safe abortions.

Before Google and Yelp shut down the ability to leave reviews on some of the crisis pregnancy center pages, Gen-Z for Change had "submit[ed] over 25000 honest reviews to over 2000 crisis pregnancy centers across the country," Julianna wrote.

"Removing the ability to provide the public with such critical information is unsafe and erodes the aspect of transparency needed in deciding where to seek care," Julianna wrote.