‘A cascade of online hate’: anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination, disinformation flourishes on social media

·4 min read

Story at a glance

  • Anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and misinformation exploded on social media platforms including Twitter and Facebook this year, according to a new report from the Human Rights Campaign and the Center for Countering Digital Hate.

  • The increase has moved in lockstep with the introduction of legislation in statehouses across the nation that threaten the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans.

  • According to Wednesday’s report, Twitter and Facebook have failed to properly enforce their safety policies — with real-world consequences.

Inflammatory and discriminatory language targeting LGBTQ+ people has surged on social media platforms including Twitter and Facebook this year, promulgating harmful stereotypes and inciting real-life violence.

The rise in anti-LGBTQ+ hate speech online coincides with one of the worst legislative years for LGBTQ+ rights in recent history, according to a report published Wednesday by the Human Rights Campaign (HR), which is one of the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ rights groups, and the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH).

Hundreds of bills targeting LGBTQ+ people have been introduced in state legislatures this year, and more than a dozen have become law.

In the month following the passage of a Florida education law barring teachers from engaging in classroom instruction related to sexual orientation and gender identity — a law known to its critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law — the volume of content on Twitter that accused LGBTQ+ people of “grooming” children increased dramatically — to an average of more than 6,000 tweets per day compared to more than 1,000 the month before.

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According to Wednesday’s report, most of the “grooming” rhetoric spread online has been propagated by only a small handful of accounts. More than 65 percent of traffic for the 500 most-viewed tweets comparing LGBTQ+ people to “groomers” or “pedophiles” was driven by just 10 people, including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), author James Lindsay and Christina Pushaw, who is the press secretary of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).

The top 500 “grooming” tweets were viewed more than 72 million times, according to the report. CCDH researchers said they anonymously reported the 100 most-viewed tweets to Twitter, which failed to act on 99 percent of them.

According to Twitter’s hateful conduct policy, users are prohibited from inciting fear or spreading harmful stereotypes about a protected class, including sexual orientation, gender and gender identity. The poor enforcement of that policy has allowed “fringe ideologies to burst into the mainstream,” researchers wrote Wednesday.

“As social media platforms fail to enforce their own standards — enabling a wave of online anti-LGBTQ+ hate to grow without restraint — extremists are wielding dangerous influence,” HRC Interim President Joni Madison said in a statement. She accused right-wing political figures of intentionally inciting hate against LGBTQ+ people on social media to “mobilize their base” ahead of the midterm elections in November.

“But the rise of this online vitriol doesn’t just have political implications,” Madison said. “There are deadly, real world consequences as violent rhetoric leads to stigma, radicalization, and ultimately violence.”

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in 2020 – the most recent year for which data is available – nearly 20 percent of hate crimes committed were motivated by anti-LGBTQ+ bias, and both 2020 and 2021 have been record-breaking years for violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people in the U.S., with dozens of fatalities logged by the HRC.

In June, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (ACLED) Project found that anti-LGBTQ+ mobilization in the U.S. — including demonstrations and political violence — was four times higher in 2021 than in 2020. Further escalation is expected this year.

Wednesday’s report also found that Facebook’s parent company Meta between January and July removed just one of 59 known ads promoting the anti-LGBTQ+ “grooming” narrative despite a policy prohibiting hate speech. Those ads were viewed more than 2.1 million times, according to the report.

Social media platforms including Twitter and Facebook have long been recognized by those in the LGBTQ+ community as sites that enforce their safety policies only marginally.

“Both Facebook and Twitter are known to algorithmically amplify hate and fail to act on abuse,

inauthentic behavior, and content that violates their policies,” Imran Ahmed, CCDH’s chief executive, wrote in the report’s introduction.

In July, an annual report from the LGBTQ+ media advocacy group GLAAD found that 84 percent of LGBTQ+ adults believe social media platforms have taken insufficient steps to protect them from online discrimination or harassment and have not done enough to combat the spread of LGBTQ+ disinformation.

Another 40 percent of LGBTQ+ adults, including nearly half of transgender and nonbinary people who use social media, said they do not feel welcome or safe online. Platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok received failing “grades” from GLAAD, which reviewed indicators related to LGBTQ+ safety, privacy and expression.

Not one platform reviewed by the group received a score higher than 50 out of a possible 100.

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