5 things social media platforms can do to combat anti-LGBTQ disinformation
These actions could protect LGBTQ users and prevent the spread of harmful anti-LGBTQ narratives
Social media platforms have a major anti-LGBTQ disinformation problem that enables myths, lies, and misleading content to spread to large audiences and earn high engagement. These platforms have occasionally shown that they are capable of quelling disinformation and removing or flagging misleading content, but they are not consistent in enforcing their own policies and protecting LGBTQ people. There are several actions that they can take to do so in 2021.
In July, a Media Matters study found that during a year-long time period, right-wing sources earned nearly two-thirds of total Facebook interactions on trans-related content that had more than 100,000 interactions (reactions, comments, shares). In particular, over one-third of content that met the criteria for the study was content about trans athletes and medical care for trans youth published by right-leaning outlets.
When YouTube and Facebook allow anti-LGBTQ groups and media to attack and spread disinformation about trans people, there are real world consequences. Harmful narratives divert attention from important issues facing the community such as employment discrimination and high rates of violence. And when trans youth and their families use these platforms, they are fed a stream of disinformation that could result in parents denying their children critical care or rejecting their identities, which can harm trans kids’ physical and mental well-being.
The failure of social media platforms to prevent the spread of anti-LGBTQ disinformation also comes as conservatives allege bias against right-wing content, especially on Facebook, which Media Matters has extensively and repeatedly debunked. Despite this, Facebook has consistently caved to conservative demands.
Under existing or new community guidelines, social media platforms have removed anti-LGBTQ content, including content that compares being trans to having a mental illness and that promotes conversion therapy, a harmful practice that seeks to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBTQ people. However, platforms’ enforcement of these rules is inconsistent and inadequate, and disinformation still runs rampant.
Here are five actions the platforms can take to help stop the spread of anti-LGBTQ disinformation:
1. YouTube should enforce its hate speech policy prohibiting content that says being trans is a mental illness
YouTube has a hate speech policy that forbids claims “that individuals or groups are physically or mentally inferior, deficient, or diseased” based on sexual orientation or gender identity, among other categories. Under this policy, it has removed several videos for comparing being trans to having a mental illness, yet many others remain on the platform. YouTube must consistently enforce this existing policy and remove videos that break it.
In November, the platform removed two anti-trans videos from right-wing propaganda network PragerU’s The Candace Owens Show for violating this policy. In both videos, host Candace Owens compared being trans to having schizophrenia. She compared being trans to having a “mental disorder” in one and trans people to “anorexics” in the other.
However, Media Matters found several other videos still on YouTube that do the same thing. For example, another episode of The Candace Owens Show features “ex-trans” activist Walt Heyer, who called being trans a “psychological disorder” and said that adult trans people are not actually transgender but rather have “a sexual fetish disorder.” During a clip of an episode of The Joe Rogan Experience on YouTube, host Joe Rogan and his guest anti-trans author Abigail Shrier compared being trans to convincing yourself you have a problem with “cutting, demonic possession, witchcraft, anorexia, bulimia.” Additionally, another video of an anti-trans conference at right-wing group the Heritage Foundation includes panelists saying that many trans kids have “neuropsychiatric conditions” and that affirming them is “causing them to be depressed and anxious about who they are.” In fact, trans youth are less likely to suffer from depression and suicidal ideation if they are accepted.
2. Facebook should continue removing pro-conversion therapy posts and pages
In July, Facebook and Instagram announced a policy banning posts that “advertise or promote” conversion therapy, and after Media Matters’ reporting, Facebook subsequently removed several posts and a page for doing so. Despite the policy and action, some of the removed posts have been reinstated and other similar posts and pro-conversion therapy pages remain active on the site. Facebook must consistently enforce its policy and take action against posts and pages that repeatedly break the rules.
In October, Facebook removed the page for pro-conversion therapy group Restored Hope Network, which consistently promoted the practice. That page has remained off the platform since then. However, in July, Facebook removed several posts from the Facebook page for International Federation for Therapeutic and Counselling Choice (IFTCC), a worldwide network of conversion therapy practitioners, but later reinstated several of those posts. Those posts cite prominent conversion “therapists” and include a video with advice for conversion therapy practitioners and others that falsely suggest “Schema therapy” and “professionals and pastoral mentors” can successfully change LGBTQ people. It is unclear why those posts were reinstated, as Facebook is notoriously opaque on its policies and their enforcement.
Several of IFTCC’s posts were never removed, including several posts that suggest people are not innately LGBTQ and another that says, “Not only is it inaccurate to tell clients that change is not possible, it is also unethical for therapists to impose their agendas on clients.”
Additionally, the Facebook page for pro-conversion therapy group Voice of the Voiceless (VoV) has posted testimony from people claiming conversion therapy is effective or who have otherwise claimed to have changed their sexual orientation. It has also highlighted conversion therapy practitioners, conferences and webinars. Thus far, Facebook has not taken any action on these posts or the VoV page.
3. Platforms should adopt policies explicitly prohibiting deadnaming and misgendering
In 2018, Twitter updated its hateful conduct policy -- which prohibits “repeated and/or non-consensual slurs, epithets, racist and sexist tropes, or other content that degrades someone” -- to include “targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals.” Facebook and YouTube, however, do not have these same protections; they must follow Twitter’s example in order to protect LGBTQ users from harassment and discrimination.
Misgendering is when someone is referred to as a different gender than the one that person identifies with, and deadnaming is when someone calls a trans person by “the name they used before they transitioned” rather than the name they currently go by. Facebook and YouTube currently have hate speech policies that prohibit targeted harassment based on gender identity and sexual orientation, but they do not specifically mention misgendering or deadnaming in their policies.
Facebook's hate speech policy under its community standards specifically prohibits “statements denying existence” and referring to transgender or nonbinary people as “it.” Its bullying and harassment policies prohibit targeting private individuals with “claims about romantic involvement, sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Similarly, YouTube’s harassment and cyberbullying policy states, “We also do not allow content that targets an individual with prolonged or malicious insults based on intrinsic attributes" including sexual orientation and gender identity. Additionally, the platform’s hate speech policy says it will “remove content promoting violence or hatred against individuals or groups based on” attributes including sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex or gender.
4. Platforms should stop monetizing anti-trans disinformation and hate
Social media platforms YouTube and Facebook have earned money from anti-LGBTQ advertisements and helped right-wing groups raise money off of anti-trans content, despite having policies that allegedly prohibit this. They should enforce and strengthen those policies and prevent the monetization of transphobia.
During the 2020 election, Facebook earned thousands of dollars from American Principles Project, an anti-LGBTQ group that ran misleading ads about trans kids and the Equality Act in order to campaign against Democratic candidates including Joe Biden. Facebook removed some of the ads after Politifact found that the ads’ claims include predictions “we can’t fact-check” and that one ad was “missing context and could mislead people.” Despite this, the group eventually ran ads repeating those claims that were not removed. Furthermore, Facebook has allowed anti-LGBTQ outlet The Daily Wire to run paid political ads -- including at least one that targets and misgenders actor Elliot Page for coming out as trans -- despite its temporary ban on them.
Similarly, YouTube allowed PragerU to raise over $25,000 off of a video featuring a client of extreme anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom, who repeatedly misgendered trans athletes and fearmongered about their participation in sports. The YouTube Giving program says that nonprofits must follow YouTube’s Community Guidelines that supposedly protect trans people. The program says that participating organizations must “follow YouTube’s monetization policies both on and off of YouTube,” which PragerU has repeatedly run afoul of.
5. Facebook should stop allowing The Daily Wire to use a coordinated network of pages to spread disinformation
The Daily Wire is a wildly successful right-wing outlet that regularly spreads anti-LGBTQ disinformation and bigotry through online content, podcasts, and social media. It operates a network of Facebook pages that share the same content at the same time, helping it reach large audiences. Facebook should stop allowing these pages to spread the outlet’s content in a coordinated manner.
Facebook started marking these pages as operated by Daily Wire after a series of reporting from Judd Legum’s Popular Information, and several pages now display language that they are “Proudly managed by the Daily Wire.” These pages previously did not disclose that relationship. Although the relationship between the pages and the outlet is more transparent, Facebook still allows the coordinated network to game the system and earn high engagement.
In October 2019, Legum reported on how Daily Wire’s network seemed to violate Facebook’s Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior policy, which removes networks of pages that mislead “about the identity, purpose, or origin of the entity that they represent” and use “multiple Facebook or Instagram assets” to do so. Facebook originally denied that Daily Wire had broken content-sharing rules, but Popular Information reported in July that Facebook finally acknowledged that the outlet was violating “policies against undisclosed paid relationships between publishers.”
The Daily Wire’s use of this network helps it spread anti-trans and other right-wing content and disinformation to large audiences. In fact, a Media Matters study found that The Daily Wire was one of the most successful outlets posting about trans issues during a year time period.
The Daily Wire has several anti-LGBTQ pundits with large media platforms, including Matt Walsh, Michael Knowles, and Ben Shapiro, the site’s founder. Their Facebook pages also share content at the exact same time as other pages in the outlet’s network.