Birth control has long been a hot topic for people who use it, as much as for the pharmaceutical industry and policy makers. There is a wide range of contraception options, each method with its own pros and cons. Online conversations stretch from intimate user posts talking about their very personal choices to political debates that unfold across traditional and social media.
Two years ago, we used Radarly to explore discussions related to birth control for the first time. Given that it remains a highly conversational topic and plenty of things have happened in the meanwhile, we decided to go back and check what shifts have occurred online since then.
Using Linkfluence Search we’ve captured over 3M conversations in english over the last 6 months worldwide. The recent developments in the US have fired the debate on reproductive rights and led to a spike of conversations at the beginning of May, notably when Alabama lawmakers have voted for an abortion ban. The day following the decision, the conversations have reached a record high of 256k posts on a single day. And as abortion will always be inextricably linked to contraception and the access to it, this controversy had a direct impact on the discussion about birth control and family planning.
Evolution of conversations on “Birth Control” since January 2019
Source: Linkfluence Search
While in 2016 the most common sources of birth control conversations were websites (39.1%), followed by forums (13.5%) and Twitter (12.3%), in 2019 the share of voice on user driven platforms clearly outweigh traditional media. Today, half of all conversations happen on Twitter (50,6%) and only 13% stem from editorial web sources such as websites or media.
Source: Linkfluence Search
This does not automatically imply that traditional media has become less active concerning this topic, in fact, a large proportion of tweets stem from media outlets that share their latest articles via Twitter. However, it shows that consumers are very outspoken about the subject and posts by influencers and opinion makers reach thousands, actively shaping the public debate in turn.
Who talks about birth control online?
Source: Linkfluence Search
In popular discourse, gender and contraception go hand-in-hand. Many feel that the burden of contraception falls mostly on women, and that most men don’t have to worry about it. Despite the recurring headlines claiming that hormonal birth control for men is likely to become reality soon, in the first months of 2019 the debate continues to be shaped mainly by female voice. Almost ¾ of all conversations stem from female accounts, with a spike of volumes among women in their late teenage years and early twenties.
With 18-24 year-olds being most active in both age groups, it could be that these users are just more interested in sex and start think about family planning. Yet it could also be a sign that younger generations feel more comfortable discussing these issues and consider it crucial to be well informed about the various birth control methods available on the market.
Out of 2M+ posts on birth control, only 28k talk explicitly about contraceptives for men. And while some of the trials have been stopped due to severe side effects, many women find themselves enraged given that those who take the anti-baby pill are exposed to similar health risks. As this tweet by Gemma Mercer (who is not a celebrity) that has been retweeted over 13K times and liked 58K users clearly shows, their voice is being heard. Thus a debate revolving gender equality for safe sex is likely to unfold in the years to come and those who have an agency in the subject will certainly profite from being proactive towards this question.
Which contraception methods are the most discussed online?
Based on the list of most common contraceptive methods issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) we did a benchmarking to see which measures of birth control were most discussed over the last 6 months. In the end, it is through knowing what drives conversations on social media, we can understand what should really matter to the contraceptives industry.
Top 5 mentioned birth control methods
Source: Linkfluence Search
Similar to 2016 the pill continues to be the most discussed method of contraception. Aligned with the overall platform distribution it is discussed mostly on Twitter (35%), Websites (29%) and Blogs (16%). A comparison of the emoji and hashtags use between 2016 and 2019 reveals however that while it is still the most discussed contraceptive, it might well be perceived in a more critical manner than three years ago as hashtags like #endometriosis or #infertility suggest. The relatively high percentage of negative posts (29%) confirms this assumption.
The most prominent hashtag #ThxBirthControl might point in a different direction, yet when looked at more precisely it becomes evident that its prominence is due to a spike of conversations around the 59th anniversary of the contraceptive’s approval by the FDA and mostly results from almost 15K retweets of a related post on Hillary Clinton’s Twitter account.
The FDA approved the very first birth control pill 59 years ago today, and the world opened up for women.— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) May 9, 2019
Reproductive freedom is simply the foundation of women’s ability to achieve their dreams.
We have to continue defending it. #ThxBirthControl
Source: Linkfluence Search
While the pill is said to decrease the risk of ovarian cancer and is often used to treat acne, an increasing number of studies and user testimonies suggest that the contraceptive that once has been hailed as the greatest scientific invention of the 20th century might have more side effects than assumed only a few years ago. Main media outlets adapt a more differentiated view towards the risks and benefits of the pill and users suffering from side and after effects of a drug take their story to Twitter and Instagram talking about #MyPillStory.
When the UK version of the Stylist reached out to their users to hear their opinion on using the pill, only a third gave a positive report, while two thirds indicated to suffer from side effects such as anxiety, exhaustion and depression, alongside other health issues. Indeed, research suggests that as often as one in every 10 women who take the pill, there’ll be headaches, spots, mood swings (including depression), a reduced libido, breast pain, nausea, irregular bleeding, a change in weight, or unusual discharge that come along for the ride. While for some women these side effects might simply suggest that they’re on the wrong type of pill, others claim they’re far better off with hormone free contraception methods altogether.
So what is important to keep in mind, is that the numerous mentions of the pill contain positive as well as neutral or negative posts. Considering that only 1.5K of all posts talk about hormone free alternatives to the pill show that rumours of the pill’s demise might be greatly exaggerated. Yet given the numerous posts concerning the side effects of the pill (67K) on the one and the increasing trend towards all things natural on the other hand, could well implicate that there is a lot more of buzz to be expected around this topic in the future.
The Comeback of Condoms?
If in 2016 only 5.3% of all posts mentioned condoms, this time the oldest means of contraception emerged as the second top discussed method of birth control. However, rather than being a sign of a turn towards hormone free alternatives, the surge of posts originated from a politically motivated tweet in which a user named Riah contests Donald Trump’s decision to cut state funding for Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit organization that provides sexual health care and on which millions of Americans rely upon.
The rule introduced by the Trump administration in February this year aims at prohibiting abortion funded by Title X, a federal family-planning program that involves health services such as birth control, cancer screeners and abortions for low-income families. Given that Planned Parenthood operates about 40 percent of the 4,000 Title X clinics in the country, critics agree that this decision was mainly aimed at targeting not only the abortion clinics operated by Planned Parenthood but the organization as a whole.
Trump's anti-abortion policy
The NYT article announcing the decision was shared almost 70K times, the Fox News article dealing with the same subject scored almost 100K shares. The user engagement triggered by those articles as well as by user posts similar to the tweet mentioned above proves that the public debate about birth control is a hot frontier, where liberal world views clash with conservative ones and basic rights believed as established are being renegotiated.
Conversations around Planned Parenthood alone have accounted for 1.87 million posts over the last six months.
As can be seen in the graph below mentions of the organization surged after the introduction of the new rule by the Trump Administration, experiencing the highest peak of volumes on Feb 25th, shortly after the announcement of the restrictive framework.
Evolution of conversations on “Planned Parenthood” since January 2019 Source: Linkfluence Search
IUD, Copper Coil, & co
While elsewhere women consider long-acting methods of contraception because of family planning or as an alternative to the pill, in the US this choice is likely to become influenced by political considerations. With women anticipating that basic healthcare questions such as affordable access to contraception might be under threat under the Trump administration, the number of requests for long-acting reversible contraceptives such as the IUD, copper coil or an implant reportedly went up in the US. According to a Harvard study, the demand for those contraceptives increased by 21.6 percent in the 30 days after Trump was elected.
From Birth Control to Reproductive Rights
Trump’s announcement of the new policy limiting access to birth control, was only the beginning of a nationwide controversy around family planning. Further spikes followed as several US states have passed controversial anti abortion laws that make it more difficult or render it altogether impossible for women to end an unwanted pregnancy. The controversy culminated in the strict abortion ban passed by Alabama lawmakers on May 14th. The day following the decision, the conversations have reached a record high of 256k posts on a single day with the ban taking the debate around reproductive rights to a worldwide level.
One of the most visible outcomes of this debate was kickstarted by the actress Busy Phillipps who took a stance at the debate, arguing in her late-night-show that “Every woman deserves compassion and care, not judgement and interference when it comes to her own body”. She also cited the famous statistic according to which 1 out of 4 women had an abortion, saying that she was one of them. Once her show was on air, she took it to Twitter where she encouraged women to share their stories by using the hashtag #YouKnowMe. Within only two weeks it’s been used over 35K times according to Linkfluence search and has triggered a movement of women but also men who have expressed their anger and despair via social media.
What this debate and its outcome on social media shows, is how inextricably linked personal choices and political interests are when it comes to birth control. While for a privileged few of us the choice of contraceptives depends on our personal preferences and individual needs, for the majority of women basic access to birth control can be an issue in the first place. Restrictive abortion laws that since recently govern in some of the US states, but also persist in countries such Poland and in large parts of the Arab World, painfully point to the fact that reproductive rights are not as self-evident as we would like to believe. Thus it is more important than ever to support organizations and initiatives that fight for women’s rights to control their bodies, offer sexual education and enable access to birth control.
So what can individuals and brands do? And which role does social media play in this perpetuating battle?
Social media's role in the birth control debate
First, spread the message. The more attention and support an idea or initiative receives online, the more likely it will raise awareness of the cause and thus increase its chances to have a real-world impact. As we have seen, opinion makers such as Busy Philipps continue to drive the conversation, yet the ways in which it gets amplified strongly depend on the support a message gets from the respective tribe. Thus every like, retweet and share does count.
Brand engagement can also make a huge difference. Given that global brands have the real-world resources and the necessary visibility online, their decision to take a stand on a particular subject and to support a cause that is crucial for them counts nowadays more than ever. MAC cosmetics invested $500,000 into one of a Planned Parenthood’s initiatives in sexual-health and Benefit announced that each May 100% of proceeds from its brow waxes are donated to Planned Parenthood and other female empowerment organizations. Other seven US brands led by women raised their voice in a full-page ad in The New York Times where they’ve signed a sort of a manifesto on abortion and encouraged further brands to follow. In particular for brands that are in the pharmaceutical or contraceptive industries, this debate bears truly a chance to take a stand and launch meaningful initiatives.
Information = power
While this might only be the beginning of a new wave of female empowerment, we can be sure that the discussion will continue to unfold online. Hence the information = power equation also applies for this debate, let’s make sure that women are well informed about various methods of contraception and first and foremost about their right to fight for their rights. Human dignity is an essential cornerstone of the universal charter of human rights, and having control over one’s body is what dignity essentially is about.
We all have a voice. Let's raise it.
Social media data included in this post was found with our social data search engine, Linkfluence Search, Book a free demo to see how it works: