ALICIA MENENDEZ (ANCHOR): While LGBTQ+ communities mourn the victims of the Colorado Springs mass shooting, the far-right is using their deaths to incite more hate. Salon reports the anti-LGBTQ slur "OK groomer" trended on Twitter immediately after the attack. The phrase smears queer in trans people as pedophiles and suggests LGBTQ rights and representation endangers children. Joining me now, Media Matters President Angelo Carusone, who's been tracking the search and homophobia online. Angelo, talk us through how this idea, this groomers idea, spread online and in conservative media.
ANGELO CARUSONE (PRESIDENT, MEDIA MATTERS) Yeah. I think, you know, it really starts back in the fall of 2021. There were a couple accounts — Libs of TikTok, a few really prominent anti-trans and sort of far-right activists — who started to essentially make the argument that any exposure to children about LGBT people is automatically grooming. That you cannot separate out this sexualization of children and a discussion about anything related to LGBT people.
So that was the first thing. And it took a few months for it to take off. It sort of spread on social media. And what happened is that these accounts continued to sort of use the smear and the slur by calling anyone involved in sort of LGBT advocacy a groomer, and making the case that any discussion of trans rights, of protections for trans people was grooming. That of course caught the attention of some prominent Republican officials, including Ron DeSantis' press secretary and Ron DeSantis, who were pushing that Don't Say Gay bill in early 2022. And they essentially reframed it. They started calling it the anti-groomer legislation.
So what basically happened is over a five-month period, between the fall of 2021 and early 2022, it was used online, it got a lot of traction, the Republicans picked it up and sort of started literally passing legislation described as anti-grooming, and you started to see a massive surge. So in the one month after DeSantis' bill was passed, there was a 60% increase in the use of that term on Twitter alone. And then it took basically four months for the platforms to start to recalibrate how they were going to deal with that slur and that attack. And by mid-summer, they started to crack down on it but now we are in an entirely different world of Elon Musk owning Twitter.
MENENDEZ: I mean, and then you have the Colorado Springs shooting. It seems to be emboldening anti-gay trolls. Explain how.
CARUSONE: Yeah. I mean, we see — well the thing is, we sort of knew this was happening for months, right, is that you'd see these prominent activists on Twitter, or predominantly Twitter, who would identify an event. So not just Libs of TikTok but this guy James Lindsey. They would say hey, there is going to be something at this library, they're going to read books, you know, a drag queen is going to come and read books. And then you would have the Proud Boys — and this happened in Nevada, for example — show up and start harassing the librarians, calling the entire library and staff groomers, and attacking them for days. Calling in bomb threats to hospitals.
So that was happening for months, and so what you basically get is a social media ecosystem that was not just sort of percolating this narrative, this hatred and this vitriol. But then every so often, sort of taking that kinetic energy and channeling it toward a new target, be it a children's hospital, a library, a gay club. And that's how you sort of got to this habit that was happening for months where there was this muscle memory or reflex of knowing when and where to go. That's how Club Q or any event would sort of get on the radar of these extremists is that they promoted when these events were happening. And saying here is another example of grooming, of targeting children.
So that was how this got operationalized and just last weekend, James Lindsey, one of the people that helped identify targets, was put back on Twitter. So, you know, it started to at least stabilize for a while because the platform started to take some action, but that plateau is over now. We're in a moment, as you noted at the intro, where it is trending again. And I think that we should just recognize that, you know, that upswing that maybe slowed down, we are in an environment now where it's going to get a lot worse.