June 2018: Anti-abortion activists use Facebook to amplify a push for one of the first “Sanctuaries for the Unborn”
In May 2018, Jim Niemann, county board chairperson of Effingham County, Illinois, proposed making the county a “sanctuary for the unborn” — supposedly inspired by the county’s passage of a similar proposal about firearms. Seizing on the opportunity, anti-abortion activists used Facebook to rally abortion foes, encouraging them to attend meetings where the resolution would be heard and show support. Using Facebook to pack hearing audiences with supporters is a common tactic for abortion opponents. For example, when Planned Parenthood of Livonia, Michigan, relocated to a new building, the Livonia City Council was forced to field complaints from a crowd of anti-abortion activists (several of which were not from Livonia), who were encouraged to attend the hearings by anti-abortion Facebook pages that were actively fighting the clinic’s move.
In Effingham County, the surge of anti-abortion organizing at county board meetings spurred local media coverage, providing anti-abortion advocates the opportunity to control and frame the narrative. On May 18, Illinois outlets such as the Effingham Daily News began publishing stories on the effort. Early reporting was checkered with anti-abortion talking points, like quotes comparing people who have abortions to murderers, or allegations that “abortion has become a means of birth control.”
Anti-abortion and right-wing media are incredibly effective at magnifying local stories. Of the 21 public Facebook posts about the Effingham ordinance posted before it passed, 16 referenced local news stories, and four linked to an article from LifeSiteNews.com. Of the 34 public Facebook posts about the ordinance posted after its passage, 13 included links to local media stories, while 22 linked to anti-abortion or right-wing outlets. The Daily Wire founder Ben Shapiro’s official Facebook page praised Effingham’s success and received over 10,000 interactions — over 34 times higher than the average interaction rate for a typical post about the Effingham campaign. Right-wing media stories about the measure solidified abortion opponents’ narrative control over the debate by parroting local reporting, in particular emphasizing quotes decrying abortion as murder and omitting quotes from pro-choice voices.