Facebook has let anti-LGBTQ groups run at least eight ads advocating against the Equality Act in the lead-up to the bill's March 17 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Each of the ads links to content attacking trans athletes and misleadingly suggesting trans people pose a threat to women’s privacy and safety, and according to Facebook’s Ad Library, the ads have the potential to reach more than 4 million Facebook users.
The Equality Act, which the House passed on a bipartisan vote on February 25, would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity “in both the public and private sectors, offering civil rights protections in businesses, hospitals and welfare services,” among other areas. This includes critical protections, for instance, preventing an employer from firing someone -- or a landlord from denying housing to someone -- for being LGBTQ. It would also prevent a medical provider from denying someone emergency care for being transgender or living with HIV.
In response, right-wing media and anti-LGBTQ groups have mobilized against the bill and made outlandish claims -- often targeting trans people -- about what it would do if signed into law.
Facebook has hate speech policies that allegedly protect trans people and has removed misleading ads about them
Facebook previously removed anti-trans political ads from anti-LGBTQ group American Principles Project that said the Equality Act would “destroy girls’ sports” after PolitiFact determined they were “missing context and could mislead people.”
The company has also recently been under fire from civil rights leaders, advertisers, and others for its role in spreading “vitriolic hate,” and it has repeatedly caved to right-wing demands that have enabled bigotry and misinformation to proliferate on the platform. In June, Facebook announced it would update its hate speech policies, including for its paid political ads. The Washington Post reported:
Facebook will prohibit more hate speech in ads, including political ads, such as claims that people from a specific group — of the same race, immigration status or sexual orientation — are a threat. The ads policies will also prohibit language that suggests refugees, immigrants or other groups are inferior in any way.
Specifically, we’re expanding our ads policy to prohibit claims that people from a specific race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, caste, sexual orientation, gender identity or immigration status are a threat to the physical safety, health or survival of others. We're also expanding our policies to better protect immigrants, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from ads suggesting these groups are inferior or expressing contempt, dismissal or disgust directed at them.
Additionally, Facebook's “Prohibited Content” policy states, “Ads must not discriminate or encourage discrimination against people based on personal attributes such as” sexual orientation or gender identity.
Anti-LGBTQ groups used Facebook ads to attack trans people and the Equality Act
Several anti-LGBTQ and conservative groups -- the Family Policy Alliance, Illinois Family Institute, Live Action, and Billy Graham Evangelistic Association -- ran paid Facebook ads targeting the Equality Act. Six of the eight ads are currently inactive but are still accessible in the Facebook Ad Library, while two are still active.
- Extreme anti-LGBTQ group Family Policy Alliance ran four versions of an ad encouraging people to “ask your U.S. Senators to oppose this dangerous bill.” It linked to a form to contact senators and which suggests that trans athletes threaten women and girl’s sports, claiming, “If it becomes law, the [Equality] Act will serve as a backdoor way to ... let boys win in girls’ sports, pressure children toward experimental cross-sex hormones – and silence all of us who disagree.”
- Anti-LGBTQ group Illinois Family Institute ran an ad that called the Equality Act “radical” and “the pet project of sex-eradicationists (also known as 'trans'-cultists).” The ad links to a blog post from the group which calls being trans a “nonsensical notion that spirit humans can be ‘trapped’ in the wrong material bodies.” It also repeatedly pushes the thoroughly debunked myth that trans women are a threat to women’s privacy and safety in bathrooms, asking several questions, including, “Should objectively male teachers and coaches who ‘identify’ as female be allowed in girls’ restrooms and locker rooms as well? If not, why not?”
- Anti-abortion group Live Action posted an ad that calls the Equality Act “an aggressive assault on human rights.” The ad features a video that claims the bill “tries to erase gender,” and makes other misleading claims, suggesting that it “could end female-only spaces, like female-only bathrooms, female-only locker rooms, female-only treatment centers, and female-only sports.” The ad remained active at the time this was published.
- The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association ran two versions of an ad linking to a post on its website which claims, “The Equality Act will legislate that we allow boys in girls’ sports, boys in girls’ locker rooms, men in women’s shelters, and men in women’s prisons.” One version of the ad was active at the time this was published.
Anti-LGBTQ content on Facebook has real-world consequences
Facebook has long been a hub of anti-LGBTQ bigotry and misinformation. A Media Matters study found that from February 22 to March 1, right-leaning political Facebook pages drove the conversation on Facebook about the Equality Act as well as the historic nomination of Dr. Rachel Levine -- the first transgender person nominated to a Senate-confirmed position -- even though both stories involve major milestones for the LGBTQ community.
Right-wing media online, as well as Fox News, have set the stage for these attacks and perpetuated vitriol and misinformation about trans people in particular -- and they have been aided by Facebook, which has long shown a preference for right-wing content on its platform, including posts about trans issues. A July 2020 study by Media Matters found that right-leaning sources earned a total of over 43 million interactions -- or more than 65% of total interactions -- on trans-related content that earned more than 100,000 interactions during the time period studied. (Nevertheless, conservatives have repeatedly claimed that Facebook and other social media outlets are biased against them.)
In continuing to run political ads against the Equality Act that seemingly violate its policies, Facebook is privileging right-wing and anti-LGBTQ groups while profiting from anti-trans misinformation and bigotry.