LGBTQ+ community facing increased social media bias, author says

Researchers investigate "the digital closet.”

June 29, 2022, 2:15 PM
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LGBTQ+ social media content creators are increasingly complaining about their posts being taken down, a practice labeled as “the digital closet” by researcher Alexander Monea.

Monea, who is a professor of English and cultural studies at George Mason University, spent two years digging through data sets and tracking down different anecdotes from users of major social media platforms who reported being censored, silenced or demonetized in different ways to write his book, “The Digital Closet,” which details the policing of online spaces focused on the LGBTQ+ community.

“It has historically been the case that these companies never release damning information unless absolutely compelled to,” said Monea.

Monea's work is an example of the growing field of research that focuses on how LGBTQ+ people, including youth, sex workers and other internet users, experience the internet in a different way than heterosexual people.

"Once the internet is largely controlled by a very few companies that all use an advertising model to drive their revenue, what you get is an over-policed sort of internet space," he told ABC News' "Perspective" podcast.

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“It’s a particularly difficult time for LGBTQ+ people on social media,” said Jenni Olson, the senior director of social media safety at the LGBTQ+ advocacy non-profit GLAAD.

“We are doing our best to monitor and hold the platforms accountable,” she said, “to point things out to them, hold their feet to the fire and insist that they do better.”

LGBTQ+ people are more likely to experience online harassment than any other group surveyed by the Anti-Defamation League in their 2022 report.

Online harassment is experienced by 66% of LGBTQ+ individuals, compared to 38% of non-LGBTQ+ individuals, according to the report, which was released this month.

Of the 2,330 LGBTQ+ and non- LGBTQ+ adults surveyed who experienced harassment on social media, 68% percent said they've experienced harassment on Facebook, among other platforms, 26% named Instagram, 23% named Twitter and 20% named YouTube.

The 2021 GLAAD Social Media Safety Index found “inadequate content moderation, polarizing algorithms and discriminatory AI which disproportionately impacts LGBTQ users and other marginalized communities” on the five major social media companies: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and TikTok.

The report makes recommendations, ranging from improving community guidelines, fact-checking and content moderation to hiring a more diverse workforce.

Recently, GLAAD’s advocacy led to TikTok adding community guidelines banning misgendering and dead-naming, which is the practice of calling a trans person by their former name, according to Olson. TikTok now joins Twitter and Pinterest in having LGBTQ+ sensitive community guidelines, said Olson.

Last week, President Joe Biden took the first steps in establishing a task force that would investigate online harassment and abuse, particularly targeted at women, youth and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

A day prior, he signed an executive order to “advance equality” for LGBTQ+ Americans, with provisions to prevent the practice of “conversion therapy” and expanding support services for LGBTQ+ youth.

In their recent survey of the content on Meta’s platforms Facebook and Instagram published over the past year, the non-profit media watchdog organization Media Matters found nearly 1,000 violations of the company’s own hate speech policy, including anti-LGBTQ+ content that includes misinformation.

A spokesperson for Meta told ABC News "our policies prohibit hate speech and harassment on Facebook and Instagram,” and cited statistics that “in the last quarter alone, the prevalence of harassment and bullying content decreased to 0.09% on Facebook and about 0.05% on Instagram, and the prevalence of hate speech was at 0.02% on Facebook and Instagram due to significant efforts on our part.”

“We are committed to improving our policies so that people feel safe on our platforms. We will continue to work with civil rights organizations to address issues around speech and social media,” they added.

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Alexander Monea’s research is focused broadly on the different mechanisms, ranging from advertising incentives to pressure from conservative legislators, that he says has created a dynamic he calls “heteronormative enforcement.”

This dynamic falls into three categories he describes as an over-blocking of LGBTQ+ content online, an uneven enforcement of content that falls into a gray-area of “things that talk about sex and pornography but aren't sex and pornography” and a content bottle-neck that favors heterosexual porn.

“The internet is largely controlled by a very few companies that all use an advertising model to drive their revenue,” he said, "which results in “an over-policed sort of internet space.”

A 2019 report by the cybersecurity intelligence company Cheq.ai found that 73% of safe LGBTQ+ related news articles were being blocked from hosting advertisements.

Monea says he has found queer creators, who rely on the internet to distribute their content, frequently complain of their posts being taken down.

This dynamic has created what he describes as a “digital closet,” whereby LGBTQ+ users have difficulty producing and distributing content online, and connecting on social media without facing harassment and misinformation.

Alejandra Caraballo, an instructor at Harvard Law School's Cyberlaw Clinic who identifies as trans, says a tweet of hers directed at Christina Pushaw, spokesperson for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, was taken down last week without an explanation.

Caraballo’s original tweet, which she shared with ABC News via email, read: “@ChristinaPushaw This was pulled from a widely circulated nazi meme 3 years ago of a facebook post from burlesque dancer who is a cis woman. This was not drag, nor did it happen in dallas. Care to comment why you’re resharing nazi disinformation and propaganda?”

The original tweet by Pushaw, which features a photo of a performer at a burlesque show posted alongside a tweet about DeSantis’ statement about drag shows, has not been taken down at the time of this article’s publication.

“I was targeted specifically for this moderation,” says Caraballo, “and it felt highly political.”

Caraballo, whose Twitter handle is @Esqueer_, says she was targeted because she publicly identifies as trans, and because the intention of her post was to stop what she calls an “anti-LGBTQ+ smear.”

"Keeping people safe on Twitter, and enforcing against content that could result in offline harm, continue to be top priorities for our teams," a spokesperson for Twitter told ABC News.

"We are committed to combating abuse motivated by hatred, prejudice or intolerance, particularly abuse that seeks to silence the voices of those who have been historically marginalized."

Twitter declined to comment on Alejandra Caraballo's case.

Linda Charmaraman, who is the director of Wellesley College’s Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab, recently completed a research study that found LGBTQ+ youth were more likely to have smaller social networks online and to share less personal information.

Although Charmaraman’s research did not find that LGBTQ+ youth experienced different levels of harassment online, Charmaraman attributes the findings to “​​the history of sexual minorities facing a lot of different kinds of harassment in school and out of school,” she says.

The upside, she adds, is that these youth are “more likely to join online groups that make them feel less lonely, so they can actually seek to find places where they belong online.”

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