Report: Online trolls are spreading offline hate against LGBTQ Americans

by John L. Micek

Baseless attacks against LGBTQ Americans by online trolls — whether anonymous or by well-known politicians and public figures — have created a “cascade of … hate, underpinned by dangerous misinformation and outright lies against the LGBTQ+ community,” according to recently released research.

That’s the top-line finding of a new report, jointly released by the Center for Countering Digital Hate and the Human Rights Campaign that calls on the social media giants Twitter and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, to act on hate speech, even as they profited from LGBTQ users during Pride Month observances and at other times of the year.   

And that online hate has reinforced offline violence and hate, with, for instance, members of the far-right Proud Boys launching a verbal assault during a ‘drag queen story hour’ at a Bay Area library in June, employing many of the same slurs found online.

“After decades of hard-won progress, the recent surge in violence and anti-LGBTQ+ hate serve as a reminder of how fragile that progress might be, and that there remain determined and capable opponents,” Imran Ahmed, the CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, wrote in the report’s introduction.

Much of the hate focused on the baseless claim that LGBTQ individuals “groom” young children — a line of attack that’s also been used to undermine the teaching of sex education in schools across the country.

The data in the report underscores just how common that slur has become in some quarters of social media.

Researchers found that:

  • Tweets mentioning the ‘OK groomer’ slur surged by 2,465 percent.
  • The Walt Disney Co. was targeted with 345,152 tweets about ‘grooming.’
  • The 500 most influential hateful ‘grooming’ tweets were seen 72 million times.
  • ‘Grooming’ tweets from just ten key figures were viewed 48 million times.
  • Twitter is failing to act on 99 percent of hateful ‘grooming’ tweets.

Looking at conversations about LGBTQ people between January and July of this year, researchers found that tweets using the ‘grooming’ slur shot up by 406 percent in the month after Florida passed its ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill.

U.S. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), and Lauren Boebert (R-CO)., were among the top purveyors of hate speech online, according to the analysis.

 (Source: Center for Countering Digital Hate)

The report further notes that the hate speech is not exclusive to Twitter, but also was spread on Facebook, where researchers found 59 ads, viewed more than 2.1 million times, promoting the false ‘grooming’ narrative

“The ads were purchased and ran between March and August 2022 during the height of Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay or Trans’ bill controversy and often focused on Disney’s opposition to the bill, with language that claims opponents of ‘Don’t Say Gay or Trans’ are protecting pedophiles or that teaching about LGBTQ+ issues in schools amounts to ‘radical sexual grooming,’ according to the report.

“Having spoken out against the bill, Disney became a target in this narrative and was the subject of over half of the Facebook ads in this study. The company has also been targeted on Twitter, where 345,152 tweets mentioning Disney appear alongside slurs like ‘predator’, ‘pedophilia’, and ‘grooming,’” Ahmed noted.

In July, Twitter, Meta, and TikTok said slandering LGBTQ people as ‘groomers’ violated its existing policies, the Los Angeles Blade reported.

But “as social media companies fail to crack down on the posting and sharing of content that violates their own policies, politically motivated extremists are becoming increasingly unfettered and unhinged online — further inflaming and radicalizing their followers, emboldening extremists to focus their ire on LGBTQ+ people, and doing so with virtually no boundaries or limitations,” Joni Madison, the interim president of the Human Rights Campaign, wrote in prefacing remarks.

As the 2022 midterms approach, social media companies are obligated to “recognize their responsibility to stop the spread of extremist and hateful misinformation, including the grooming narrative,” Madison wrote. “These companies must act swiftly and transparently, providing clarity on how they’re interpreting their own policies. And given their lack of action thus far, we also ask lawmakers to hold these companies to higher standards.”

John L. Micek is the editor of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this article first appeared.

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