Update (1/29/20): On January 29, the South Dakota House passed HB 1057.
Right-wing media outlets LifeSiteNews and The Daily Wire have dominated coverage of an increasingly heated debate around trans-affirming care for youth. As legislatures around the country consider anti-trans bills that would prevent trans kids from accessing affirming medical care, right-wing outlets are earning high engagement on social media platforms and shaping public opinion -- and legislative policies -- by pushing misinformation about trans kids.
On January 29, the South Dakota House is expected to vote on HB 1057, a dangerous bill that would make it a misdemeanor for medical professionals to provide trans youth with affirming medical care, such as prescribing lifesaving hormones or puberty blockers. Numerous medical studies demonstrate that affirming care is a necessity for many trans folks.
This bill is a direct result of right-wing media coverage.
How LifeSiteNews and The Daily Wire spread misinformation and anti-trans fearmongering about a Texas custody battle
In October, right-wing media produced obsessive coverage about a Texas custody battle involving a trans child, using dangerous misinformation about trans health care. Anti-LGBTQ sites LifeSiteNews and The Daily Wire, which is conservative media figure Ben Shapiro’s outlet, published coverage of the case that earned some of the highest engagement on Facebook -- more than 2.78 million interactions during just one week.
From October 21 to 27, LifeSiteNews published at least 19 posts about the case, which earned over 1.65 million total interactions on Facebook, according to the Crowdtangle Chrome extension. The outlet’s top performing article earned nearly 469,000 interactions on Facebook after several of LifeSiteNews’ Facebook pages posted it. Additionally, according to the Facebook Ad Library, LifeSiteNews ran six ads about the case on Facebook and Instagram that earned at least 52,000 total impressions.
During the same time frame, The Daily Wire published at least nine posts about the case, which earned over 1.13 million total interactions on Facebook, according to the Crowdtangle Chrome extension. The outlet’s top performing article alone earned over 341,000 interactions on Facebook after The Daily Wire’s main media personalities -- Shapiro, Michael Knowles, and Matt Walsh -- each posted the article to their Facebook pages multiple times. In the past, these same figures have drastically boosted engagement on anti-trans stories by posting articles on their pages multiple times and within several minutes of one another. Walsh also started a Twitter hashtag about the case that went viral and which was shared by Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX).
Journalist Judd Legum has reported on how The Daily Wire’s content promotion has appeared to violate Facebook’s rules about “inauthentic coordinated behavior,” helping it garner “extraordinary” levels of engagement.
How right-wing media outlets are pushing anti-trans legislation in 2020
On January 29, reporter Katelyn Burns wrote about the anti-trans health care legislation in South Dakota and other states, highlighting that right-wing media’s domination of the issue has “spurred the latest trend in anti-trans laws.” Burns wrote that the bill and others like it “grew directly from the social media disinformation campaign” about the Texas custody battle, adding that “it didn’t take but a few months for this groundswell of conservative opposition to spur the introduction of legislation seeking to ban the medical transitioning of minors altogether.” Burns also noted what right-wing media often leave out when demonizing affirming care:
Deciding whether to allow a trans adolescent to go on puberty blockers is a decision most parents don’t take lightly. They often talk to doctors and psychologists, and the general guidelines of most major American medical associations recommend affirming a child’s gender exploration in order to improve their mental health. Transitioning is a slow, deliberative process for minors, and only adolescents who are insistent, persistent, and consistent in their gender identity over long periods are recommended for medical intervention.
Compiled by the Trevor Project in a research brief, study after study has shown that affirming trans and gender-diverse kids in their self-exploration improves mental health and lowers suicide risk. The affirming model, which allows children to explore their gender identities at their own pace and can include puberty blockers, has been recommended by nearly every major American medical association, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the Endocrine Society, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
LifeSiteNews and The Daily Wire have used this playbook before, dominating coverage on topics such as trans athletes and spreading misinformation on medical care for trans youth, all while earning high social media engagement. In fact, a Media Matters analysis using social media analytics website BuzzSumo found that right-wing content about trans athletes earned some of the highest engagement of all trans-related content in 2019.
Another clear example of right-wing media’s dominance in coverage of trans issues is how it successfully launched anti-trans group the Kelsey Coalition from a nascent organization into one affecting the national conversation in less than a year’s time. After being frequently referenced in right-wing and evangelical media, the group is now directly consulting with legislators on these anti-trans health care bills.
Right-wing media do not operate in a silo. On the contrary, the conservative establishment, including right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation and extreme anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), have been shaping policy that affects trans people for years. ADF reportedly advised on South Dakota’s anti-trans medical care bill, and the legislator who introduced it attended an event at Heritage about the very topic. Fox News has also been pushing misinformation about trans-affirming care for young people for years, including during a discussion with Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick about the Texas custody battle and in an interview with a Kelsey Coalition member.