TikTok users and coders flood Texas abortion site with fake tips

Demonstrators protest against the new state law creating an almost complete ban on abortions in Texas, on Sept 1, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

CALIFORNIA (NYTIMES) - After a Texas law restricting abortion went into effect Wednesday (Sept 1), the state's largest anti-abortion group publicised a website that invited citizens to inform on the law's violators.

The website, prolifewhistleblower.com, which was set up by the group Texas Right to Life, was designed to help carry out the new law.

That is because the law places enforcement not in the hands of state officials but with private citizens, who are deputised to sue anyone who performs or aids an abortion in violation of the law.

Tips about the law's potential offenders quickly flooded into the website, which features an online form so people can anonymously submit reports of those who are illegally obtaining or facilitating abortions.

But some of the tips were a little unexpected.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who was a leading proponent of the abortion law, was a violator, according to some of the tips.

The fictional characters from Marvel's Avengers were also apparently seeking abortions, the reports said.

Other tips did not point to individuals but instead contained copies of the entire script to the 2007 animated film Bee Movie.

The reports, which were obviously bogus, were the work of activists on TikTok, programmers, and Twitter and Reddit users who said they wanted to ensnarl the site's administrators in fabricated data.

Their digital dissent was part of a wave of reaction against the Texas law, which bans most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy and makes the state the most restrictive in the nation in terms of access to abortion services.

US President Joe Biden on Thursday said the situation "unleashes unconstitutional chaos" against women.

On TikTok, a developer with the alias Sean Black said he had developed a script that automatically generated fake reports to the prolifewhistleblower.com site.

An activist speaks outside the Supreme Court in protest against the new Texas abortion law in Washington, DC on Sept 2, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

After the site tried to block him, the developer released a shortcut that allowed anyone with an iPhone or iPad to automatically create a fake report using a randomly generated Texas ZIP code.

"What if somebody very technical, very handsome, set up a bot that automatically sent the request to their website," the developer said on TikTok. "Oh wait. It was me. I did that."

The developer, who declined to provide his real name for fear of retaliation, said in an interview that more than 7,200 people had clicked on his script and more than 8,450 people had clicked on the shortcut as at Thursday afternoon, based on data from Linktree, a service that helps people manage their website content. The shortcut was reported earlier by Vice.

On GitHub, a website for sharing and collaborating on software code, another programmer, Jonathan Diaz, released a script and posted a link Thursday to a new app, Pro-Life Buster, which allowed people to automatically spam the Texas website with "bogus tips".

The developer wrote that the script was a way to push back against the law because it was "no one's business to know about people's abortions". By Thursday evening, the app showed that 1,000 new reports had been shared.

Mr Diaz said the app existed to flood the site with authentic-looking, but fabricated, data. "The goal is to waste these people's time and resources so that they wake up and realise this effort is not worth their time," he said Friday.

These techniques, known as "hacktivism", have become increasingly prevalent.

Last year, TikTok teens and fans of South Korean pop music inundated a rally website for former US president Donald Trump with fake registrations - and then never showed up, leaving thousands of seats conspicuously empty.

Anonymous, the loose hacking collective, has protested policies from the Vatican, the Central Intelligence Agency and others by flooding their websites with junk traffic to try to force them offline.

Texas Right to Life spokesman Kim Schwartz denied the group's website had been overwhelmed with false reports.

"We knew this would happen and we were prepared," she said. "Activists have been trying to spam and take down the site for a week and failed."

Even so, the group's website appeared to periodically buckle on Thursday and drop under the load of reports, according to screenshots posted to Reddit and other sites.

To stem the flood of automated reports to its website, Texas Right to Life's administrators have added a new version of a "Captcha", a program that tries to filter real human responses from automated computer reports.

But some hacktivists persisted. One posted a screenshot on Reddit of a fake report that pointed to some of Marvel's Avengers as abortion seekers.

On Twitter, people posted screenshots of other fake tips. One user sarcastically reported that he wanted to retroactively abort his 30-year-old son who apparently would not leave the house.

Others on Twitter called for a boycott of GoDaddy, the company that hosts the Texas Right to Life tip site.

They said the site violated GoDaddy's rules that prohibit customers from collecting or harvesting nonpublic information about anyone without their "prior written consent". GoDaddy said late on Thursday that it had given Texas Right to Life 24 hours to find a new hosting provider before cutting off service.

"We have informed prolifewhistleblower.com they have 24 hours to move to another provider for violating our terms of service," GoDaddy spokesman Dan C. Race said in an e-mail.

By Friday afternoon, some people were having trouble submitting tips to the website using the form. Others reported seeing a GoDaddy firewall page instead of the prolifewhistleblower.com site.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.