Tiktok Vigilantism: Protest in the age of COVID

By: Gina Picciano

After the Supreme Court’s ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Jackson, pro-choice advocates took to the internet to voice their opposition to the Texas bill SB 8 banning the termination of a pregnancy in the sixth week of gestation.[1] In the midst of COVID-19, social distancing and capacity restrictions have not hampered protest and political activism in response to this regulation. Social media provides a new and effective outlet for political protests and is proving to be a successful medium in organizing and disseminating efforts of protest.

     Through the efforts of the Tiktok userbase, pro-choice activists raised an uproar. This outrage probably put enough pressure on the webhost to take the site down. Since the new Texas law allows private citizens to bring suit against anyone aiding and abetting abortions past six weeks of pregnancy, Texas Right to Life published ProLifeWhistleblower.com in support of this effort.[2] The website acts as an anonymous tip line to report these violations, so Texas Right to Life can later pursue legal action against these individuals.[3]

      Even before the Supreme Court decision, the world reacted in a large-scale campaign of internet vigilantism against ProLifeWhisteblower.com. Tiktok and Twitter creators encouraged their followers to  spam the anonymous reporting form with anything from fabricated reports of abortion services, to submission of pornographic material.[4] On August 24, the day that ProlifeWhiteblower.com was created[5], user black_madness21 touted a shortcut he wrote to run on Apple devices.[6] This shortcut essentially auto-fills the anonymous reporting form, letting users submit responses in a faction of the time it would normally take.[7]  Programmer Johnathan Diaz created an app that generated fake stories involving abortions to submit to the site.[8] An influx of thousands of fake tips would keep Texas Right to Life busy with sifting through fraudulent reports to find legitimate claims, and with blocking IP addresses from the devices submitting these tips.[9]

     The efforts of the Tiktok user base started as nothing but an inconvenience for Texas Right to Life, but the webhost of ProLifeWhisteblower.com decided to take the site down in the midst of the controversy.[10] Its webhost, GoDaddy Inc., tweeted that ProlifeWhisteblower.com had 24 hours to move to a different provider, but did not specify how the organization violated GoDaddy’s terms of service.[11] Whether GoDaddy made this decision independently or under social pressure remains to be seen. As of September 5, 2021, the site is hosted by Epik Inc.[12]

     Could these efforts land activists in hot water? This seems to be a risky course of action against SB 8, as some creators still post under their legal names instead of using the protection of an anonymous organization. But while cybercrimes like DDOS attacks can be prosecuted under the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (the “CFAA”)[13], outside actors causing a mere inconvenience to a non-profit organization does not neatly fall into any violation outlined in the CFAA. The fact that these individuals are acting in concert across the globe, but not under any one organization, makes prosecution both expensive and unlikely. In addition, submitting fake tips to their online form does not compromise the security of databases or devices used by Texas Right to Life – so this activity could not be prosecuted under the CFAA.

     The effectiveness of ProLifewhistleblower.com’s reporting system remains to be seen. It is possible that Texas Right to Life will not bring legal action against any women or healthcare providers. President Biden could pass an executive order halting the effects of SB 8. Until then, the innovation and extra-legal efforts of pro-choice activists will continue.

[1] See generally Whole Woman’s Health v. Jackson, No. 21A24, 2021 U.S. LEXIS 3680 (Sept. 1, 2021).

[2] Sanford Nowlin, Texas Right to Life sets up site asking for anonymous tips on people who get or offer abortions, San Antonio Current (Aug. 24, 2021), https://www.sacurrent.com/the-daily/archives/2021/08/24/texas-right-to-life-sets-up-site-asking-for-anonymous-tips-on-people-who-get-or-offer-abortions.

[3] Id.

[4] See Steven Asarch, People are using bots and ‘Shrek porn’ to spam a tip line for Texas’ 6-week abortion ban, Insider (Sept. 2, 2021), https://www.insider.com/texas-abortion-prolife-whistleblower-website-heartbeat-bill-anti-abortion-2021-9.

See also Mike Snider, TikTok coder creates iPhone shortcut to send Texas abortion whistleblower site fake tips, USA Today (Sept. 2, 2021), https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2021/09/02/tiktok-iphone-code-fools-texas-abortion-whistleblower-site/5701760001/.

[5] WHOIS search results, GoDaddy,  https://www.godaddy.com/whois/results.aspx?checkAvail=1&domain=prolifewhisteblower.com [http://archive.today/SKU4K].

[6] See Sean Black (@black_madness21), TikTok (Aug. 24, 2021), https://www.tiktok.com/@black_madness21/video/7000057713975725318?sender_device=pc&sender_web_id=6954098226405803526&is_from_webapp=v1&is_copy_url=0 [http://archive.today/nnMkE].

[7] Id.

[8] See Bobby Allyn, GoDaddy is Booting A Site That Sought Anonymous Tips About Texas Abortions, NPR (Sept. 3, 2021), https://www.npr.org/2021/09/03/1034188184/texas-abortions-godaddy-website-anonymous-tips.

[9] Id.

[10] See generally GoDaddy (@GoDaddy), Twitter (Sept. 3, 2021 11:48 AM), https://twitter.com/GoDaddy/status/1433819084068622345.

[11] Id.

[12] WHOIS search results, GoDaddy,  https://www.godaddy.com/whois/results.aspx?checkAvail=1&domain=prolifewhisteblower.com [http://archive.today/SKU4K].

[13] 18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(5)(A).