Facebook is profiting from harmful anti-trans political ads despite its hate speech policies
Anti-trans Facebook ads from American Principles Project have earned over 1 million impressions and potentially reached millions of users in just one week
Update (9/16/20): Following Media Matters’ reporting and condemnation by LGBTQ advocacy organizations, Facebook removed American Principles Project’s ads attacking trans athletes. According to the Facebook Ad Library, advertisements misinforming about best practice health care for trans youth remain active.
Facebook enabled anti-LGBTQ organization American Principles Project (APP) to earn over 1 million impressions on harmful political ads that attack transgender athletes and misinform about best practice medical care for trans youth. The ads are part of an effort by APP to use trans people as a wedge issue in battleground states to attack Democratic nominee Joe Biden and other Democrats, such as Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), for supporting LGBTQ-inclusive policies.
APP is running at least 16 paid political ads on Facebook -- often with the same text and videos -- targeting users in Michigan. According to Facebook’s Ad Library, they have the potential to reach several million Facebook users, and according to the Dewey Square Adwatch tool set used to analyze Facebook ad data, Facebook has earned at least $24,900 on the ads since they started running in early September. At time of publication, all 16 ads are still active on the platform.
APP ads attack Biden and Democrats for supporting trans people
The ads feature three separate videos that attack Biden and Peters for supporting trans people and the Equality Act, which 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.
One APP video fearmongers that the Equality Act would “destroy girls’ sports'' by allowing trans athletes to participate and explicitly calls for viewers to “vote against Gary Peters and Joe Biden,” calling them “too extreme for Michigan.” Two other videos falsely claim that best practice medical care for trans youth that affirms their identities is “very dangerous and irreversible.” One of those videos also claims that “Gary Peters and Joe Biden support gender change treatments for minors.”
In reality, young trans and gender-diverse children are not undergoing treatments or surgery until they are older, despite right-wing lies like those in APP’s Facebook ads that misleadingly suggest otherwise:
Many people wrongly assume that prepubescent transgender or gender-diverse children will receive medical interventions,” Katherine Kuvalanka, a social work professor at Miami University in Ohio, said in an email to The Washington Post. “The only interventions for young children is affirmation and acceptance for who they are.
What’s more, gender-affirming health care for trans youth is widely supported by medical professionals and yields long-term mental health benefits. A recent study found that both cisgender and transgender children sense their gender identities at young ages, and another study found that gender nonconforming kids “who go on to transition do so because they already have a strong sense of their identity.”
LGBTQ advocacy organizations GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign condemned the APP ads and called on social media companies to remove them. In a statement, the Human Rights Campaign said, “The ads blatantly lie about what the Equality Act does and misrepresent the transgender community. Facebook and all social media platforms must take down these deceitful ads or label them for the misinformation they are.”
Facebook allowed ads despite hate speech policies that allegedly protect trans people
APP has taken the playbook for these ads right from right-wing media and anti-LGBTQ groups, which frequently target trans athletes and spread misinformation about best practice medical care for trans youth. In fact, Media Matters found earlier this year that right-leaning sources dominated Facebook engagement on content about trans issues that earned more than 100,000 interactions (reactions, comments, shares). Those sources earned 65.7% of the total interactions studied -- nearly double the engagement of all other sources combined. Specifically, content from right-leaning sources about trans athletes or medical care for trans people accounted for more than 35% of total content analyzed.
Facebook has 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.
Additionally, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg confirmed in a statement on Facebook that the new hate speech policies would cover gender identity and sexual orientation:
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.
Furthermore, under Facebook's“Prohibited Content” policy, “Ads must not discriminate or encourage discrimination against people based on” sexual orientation or gender identity.
But despite Facebook’s supposed policy changes that allege to protect LGBTQ people, it has allowed APP’s ads spreading harmful anti-trans misinformation to potentially reach millions of users on the platform.
APP’s Facebook ad buy in Michigan is part of its larger campaign to make trans people a wedge issue in the 2020 election
In November 2019, APP released a campaign guide that urged Republicans to leverage trans folks as a wedge issue in 2020. The guide specifically pointed to sports, nondiscrimination measures like the Equality Act, and public accommodations such as bathrooms and locker rooms.
The group ran similar anti-trans ads in Kentucky during its 2019 election in an attempt to smear Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andy Beshear, who was elected despite the ads. At the time, The New York Times reported that the APP was “effectively running a pilot program for the 2020 election that will help it determine how it could use the debate over transgender rights to rally conservative voters in support of President Trump.”
In August, Politico reported that the group would revive its campaign for the 2020 election and that it has been appealing to President Donald Trump to campaign around transgender issues, particularly trans athletes.
On September 3, APP issued a press release explaining the digital ad buy: “The campaign is a part of a $4 million election effort which will target persuadable Democrats and independent voters in key swing states, most notably with a $2 million spend in Michigan.” The same day, APP Executive Director Terry Schilling posted a Twitter thread defending the campaign and lying that LGBTQ advocates are “sexualizing children” and working to get them to “consent to a sex change,” calling it “insane and evil.”
According to NBC Out, APP plans to run similar anti-trans digital ads in Wisconsin “in the coming weeks.”
APP’s campaign comes as anti-LGBTQ groups like Alliance Defending Freedom and The Heritage Foundation are working with state legislators and in courts across the country to prohibit trans athletes from competing and to prevent trans youth from accessing lifesaving medical care.