* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Misinformation and hate are being spread about LGBT+ people on social media
Andrew Legon is a senior campaigner at Avaaz
Pride month ended this year with Europe divided.
A rainbow curtain now cuts across the European Union, with Hungary’s anti-LGBT+ law just the latest sign of an increasingly sharp frontier in the fight for LGBT+ rights. All eyes are now on Brussels and the fightback by the European Commission. But they should also be focused on Silicon Valley – for the fight for LGBT+ rights is being fought and lost on social media.
Hungary’s new law, which bans depictions of homosexuality in school educational materials or TV shows for under-18s, is undoubtedly a political move. Look no further than next year’s election to see the reason why prime minister Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian government has suddenly intensified its scapegoating of LGBT+ people. Copycat legislation is likely in Poland, which is travelling a similar path towards illiberalism.
That path is paved with anti-LGBT+ misinformation. Just as the extremists of the 1930s came to power, and wielded it, on the back of new communication tools such as radio, so too are their modern-day counterparts. Social media is this century’s far-right enabler.
LGBT+ misinformation is nothing new. But social media has it pumped full of steroids. Algorithms now push out misinformation about our communities to millions. Mark Zuckerberg highlighted the problem himself when he wrote that Facebook had a “basic incentive problem” - “when left unchecked, people will engage disproportionately with more sensationalist and provocative content”. The far right knows this. And they know how to game these algorithms to scapegoat us and weaponise hate and fear. After all, what could be more provocative than the false idea that the LGBT+ community is coming for your kids?
We’ve seen time and again how this has worked in practice. Take Brazil. During the 2018 election, a proportion of the electorate came to suddenly support a fringe right-wing extremist for President. How? Polls clearly show that they came to believe a series of toxic lies about his opponent spread in large part by social media, including that he had tried to turn the country’s school children gay.
Domestically, fanning the flames of anti-LGBT+ sentiment helps roll back rights, win power and then hold it. But internationally too, anti-gay lies and hatred are deployed to undermine ideas of universal human rights, build alliances and push back against “Western” influence.
In Georgia – a country on the geopolitical fault line between Russia and the West – the violent attack on the offices of Tbilisi Pride in July was preceded by the proliferation of anti-LGBT+ narratives spread on Georgian far-right Facebook pages. According to research by an anti-misinformation think-tank, many of the narratives “demonised the West and liberal democracy, as well as presented the LGBT community as a threat to Georgia”.
But despite being a frontline target in the war on truth, the LGBT+ movement - arguably one of the most successful in history – seems almost absent from one of the biggest battles of the 21st century: the fight for radical reform of Big Tech. And that absence is taking place not just in the EU but in the US and worldwide. This needs to change, and quickly.
This means that LGBT+ activists and allies must pay as much attention to the people who sit in the boardrooms of Silicon Valley as they do to those sitting on the US Supreme Court or in the governments of illiberal countries now in the heart of Europe.
It means mobilising marches and people power to influence EU and US moves to rein in misinformation, just as much as protests and placards whenever LGBT+ rights are directly under threat.
Social media is a weapon of mass LGBT+ destruction. It’s time our community led the fight to disarm it.