Carole Hénaff

Peer to Peer

News you can use, via Google Doc

December 6, 2022

In May, when a leaked draft opinion indicated that the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade, Alison Turkos, an activist focused on abortion and survivor justice, was overwhelmed with messages. People wanted advice, reassurance, straightforward information. Many just wanted to help. “What happens during a moment of crisis is, people decide, ‘This is the moment for me to get involved,’” Turkos said. She appreciated the thought, but sensed the stampede would lead to chaos. Her colleagues felt much the same way: “People who I loved in the movement were already so fucking burnt out and didn’t always have the energy to have these conversations.” So she resolved to create a compact, comprehensive, free resource that could be sent to anyone who was feeling panicked. The result was How to Show Up for Abortion Access, a five-page Google document detailing the best abortion clinics to donate to, how to access abortion pills, what to tell children about abortion, and more. “I wanted it to be an act of love to my community,” Turkos told me.

Turkos—who is thirty-four, with fair skin, brown hair, and a chipper, impassioned voice—has been working in the abortion movement since 2010. Born in Vermont, she has lived in New York for more than a decade, working for the National Institute for Reproductive Health and for Planned Parenthood NYC. She’s now on the steering committee of the All* Above All Action Fund. Turkos approached her abortion access Google Doc as if she were a reporter doing service journalism. She took on common questions—why donations to large organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union aren’t as useful as giving directly to a local abortion fund, for instance—and tried to provide answers that were clear and compassionate. “For me the audience was my mom, sister, or cousin—people who were maybe going to stumble across this document or be sent it,” Turkos said. The readers she had in mind were earnest, unsure, perhaps wary of news outlets that tend not to direct abortion seekers to clinics, or that rely on euphemisms (“protect Roe”). “When the media refuses to say the word ‘abortion,’ they are participating in abortion stigma,” she said. She wanted people to know that the information in her doc came from a source “trusted within the movement”; she signed it at the end, as if having written a letter. “It was important to me that people know where the information was coming from, and that they knew they could contact me with questions, comments, or suggestions for information to add.” As the doc was passed from one person to another who vouched for its quality, the material accumulated credibility.

Turkos’s document was similar to other Google Docs that have appeared recently in the wake of social and political upheaval: about the Sudan uprising, the war in Afghanistan, American bail funds. Occasionally, they have stirred their own controversy. Back in 2017, Moira Donegan, a journalist, started the “Shitty Media Men” list, a Google spreadsheet that made use of collaborative editing to crowdsource information about sexual misconduct. Someone on the list sued Donegan for defamation; her lawyer argued that the document deserved the same legal protections as a social network—Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act shields online companies and users from being sued for publishing certain material from third parties—but in the spring, a judge dismissed that reasoning, and the case moved closer to trial.  

If the content and sensitivity, even the fate of these docs have varied, they have all shared a role, aiming to fill gaps left by traditional media and offer not only information, but resources to act. The Turkos doc—and others that circulated around the same time, including one that compiled abortion funds in every state—also represents a modern continuation of a decades-long tradition among abortion providers and seekers, who have always used alternative means to share news about reproductive health. Karissa Haugeberg, an associate professor of history at Tulane University, whose research focuses on the history of the contemporary US antiabortion movement, told me that before 1973, when Roe took effect, newspaper coverage about terminating pregnancies typically focused on people who had been charged with performing procedures illegally; abortion seekers created their own information networks. Beginning in 1967, the Clergy Consultation Service made pamphlets directing women toward safe abortions. “Members of the Clergy Consultation Service were deliberate about being open about their work,” Haugeberg said. “They wanted to end the stigma surrounding abortion.” In Chicago, in 1968, a student started “the Janes” by distributing her dormitory phone number as an abortion referral hotline. Those networks, in turn, followed the efforts of African Americans who traversed the country during Jim Crow, printing road guides with safe routes to use and places to stop. 

“Peer-to-peer information is vital on so many levels,” Turkos told me. “It’s a reminder that even without the media’s help, we can keep ourselves informed and safe.”

It’s a righteous lineage. But Google Docs present challenges unknown to the old print and phone chains. Cait McKinney, an assistant professor of communication at Simon Fraser University and the author of Information Activism: A Queer History of Lesbian Media Technologies (2020), sees the benefits of using a Google document as a peer-to-peer information tool. Yet, McKinney noted, “One problem with any peer-to-peer document is veracity. It’s important to always ask who made an information source, why they made it, and how they know the things that they are writing are true.” Beyond journalistic standards, there are privacy concerns. “In general, the use of platforms like Google is not totally safe,” they said. “Google is a data-mining and surveillance machine.”

What makes a Google Doc so accessible is exactly what can make it insecure. There have already been several cases of someone’s abortion-related search history becoming the cause of an arrest; in Mississippi, a woman was charged with “killing her infant child” after police found a Google search for abortion pills on her phone. The thought of an abortion seeker’s personal information being publicly accessible is all the more terrifying in states that offer rewards for turning in people who plan to terminate a pregnancy. Technology companies have shown their willingness to turn user information over to authorities in abortion-related cases. If you’re logged in to your Google account and viewing a document—on abortion access or anything else—that hasn’t been directly shared with you, your identity will remain anonymous to others in the doc; Google Docs won’t reveal a user’s IP address or physical location. But as a Google spokesperson told me, “If the document has been explicitly shared with you, the email address that the other user typed in order to share with you will be visible to all editors in the sharing dialogue.” 

“Google itself does collect all that information and could potentially use it against us,” Daly Barnett, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told me. Barnett believes it’s unlikely that an individual could obtain an IP address or other personal identifying information about someone idling in a Google Doc. Yet it would be possible to obtain that person’s information through open-source intelligence, if she uses a secondary Google account for what she considers to be “dangerous” browsing, and that account has the same registered username elsewhere on the internet, such as a Reddit forum. It would be easy for a sleuth to deanonymize that person by tracing her Reddit profile to her email, and then possibly her name. To avoid that trap, Barnett recommends using a secure browser. “I certainly don’t want to advise people to not use Google Docs or not access public health resources that people are making on Google Docs just because they think it’s unsafe,” Barnett said. “The resources are extremely valuable and important forms of community safekeeping. We just need to take special precautions when using them.”  To Turkos, the benefits of a Google Doc outweigh the risks, legal and technological. “Someone offered to move the information to a website, but I declined—it felt easier to maintain and update as a Google Doc,” she told me. “Everything in that document is easily found on the internet, so I was never worried about surveillance. I was simply doing the labor of ‘doing a Google’ for folks and making it easier for them.” A Google Doc may be imperfect, but it does allow for endless revision. “I made the doc proactively, knowing that for two weeks people were going to care about abortion, and then that energy would go away,” Turkos said. “We in the movement know this is a marathon and not a sprint.”

Mary Retta writes about politics and culture. Her work can be found in New York magazine, The Atlantic, The Nation, and elsewhere.