Are queer people safe on social media platforms?


Some of us may have experienced reporting a deeply queerphobic comment or post on a social media platform, only to be told that our report was rejected and that the offender did not violate the platform’s community standards. It seems this is far more common than you might realise.

GLAAD’s second annual Social Media Safety Index (SMSI) was released in July, and the criticism that this US-based media monitoring NGO had for the biggest social media platforms in last year’s report seem to have gone unheard.

In its inaugural Social Media Safety Index, which was released in 2021, GLAAD lambasted the world’s most popular social media sites over their lack of action against LGBT hate speech on their platforms, stating that the sites do precious little to mitigate online harassment and misinformation – something that significantly affects the public health and safety of the queer community.

This year’s SMSI reads much the same as the 2021 report, and cites 84% of LGBTQ adults stating that there aren’t enough protections on social media to prevent discrimination, disinformation and harassment. In all, 40% of LGBTQ adults don’t feel welcomed and safe on social media, with this figure jumping to 49% among transgender and nonbinary people.

The conduct of all the biggest social media platforms was inspected for the report, and every single one scored below 50% on GLAAD’s Social Media Safety Index scorecard. When grading the platforms, GLAAD considered features like protecting LGBT users by blocking ads that could be discriminatory or harmful, or offering them the option to choose a gender pronoun that suits them.

GLAAD found that platforms are largely responding to anti-queer misinformation and rhetoric “with inaction and often do not enforce their own policies regarding such content”. The report argues that “companies possess the tools they need to effectively curb anti-LGBTQ hate and rhetoric but instead are prioritising profit over LGBTQ safety and lives”.

Of all the platforms surveyed, TikTok came in at the bottom with a score of 43%, with Instagram getting the highest score of 48%. Facebook got 46%, Twitter got 45%, and YouTube received a score of 45%.

“Today’s political and cultural landscapes demonstrate the real-life harmful effects of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and misinformation online,” said GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis. “The hate and harassment, as well as misinformation and flat-out lies about LGBTQ people, that go viral on social media are creating real-world dangers, from legislation that harms our community to the recent threats of violence at Pride gatherings.”

Ellis added: “Social media platforms are active participants in the rise of anti-LGBTQ cultural climate and their only response should be to urgently create safer products and policies, and then enforce those policies.”

Why safety on social media platforms matters

Social media has become a cesspool of dangerous opinions and hate speech, and misinformation is rife on all the biggest platforms. While we’ve seen the result of misinformation in everything from kids eating laundry detergent pods and taking part in online challenges that put their safety at risk, to fake news about COVID-19 and the vaccines that protect us against the virus, it is crucial to note that discrimination is not only restricted to the online sphere.

When someone posts something hateful about the LGBTQI+ community on their social media profile, it is fair to assume that they also carry this belief in their lives away from the screen. What makes social media such a dangerous driver of violence and harassment, though, is that it offers bigots a far-reaching platform to spread their discriminatory opinions to the masses.

We’ve seen this locally many times, with the most recent instance being Afrikaans singer Steve Hofmeyr’s rant about the “+” in LGBTQ+ supposedly referring to bestiality. In a Twitter post earlier this year, Hofmeyr responded to Disney’s commitment to being more inclusive of queer identities in its productions by saying: “While my generation learned to speak to mice, ducks and dogs, our children will be taught how to have sex with mice, ducks and dogs. You think it’s weird but let me tell you why I’m saying this. Those relationships with animals are part of that ‘+’ at the end of the LGBTQ; that includes those kinds of relationships with animals.”

Hofmeyr has since been taken to the Equality Court for his inflammatory statements by the SA Human Rights Commission, which has demanded that the singer issue a public apology, do community service, and pay R500 000 to an LGBTQI+ group. The SAHRC has said that Hofmeyr’s comments may seriously demean and humiliate the queer community, affecting their rights to equality and dignity as set out in section 9 and 10 of the Constitution.

While Hofmeyr unleashed a furore among the LGBTQIA+ community with his latest tirade, this is not the first time that he has used his social media platforms to spew hate against the LGBT community – in 2019 he took to Twitter to sarcastically mock Charlize Theron’s decision to accept her transgender daughter’s identity.

What makes Hofmeyr’s comments significant is the fact that they were not made in a private setting, but were blared to an arena of smitten followers, who take every word he writes as the gospel truth, underscoring the hateful opinions that they may already hold surrounding the LGBT community. In the case of both social media posts mentioned, Hofmeyr’s followers chimed in and spewed their own hateful opinions, with the singer not acting to discourage them from doing so.

In a country where at least 24 individuals (that we know of) were murdered on account of their sexuality and gender identity between February and October last year, the link between what is said online and how people are treated in reality is of paramount importance. The pandemic has shown us exactly how the online rumour mill has a huge hand in how people act.

While Steve Hofmeyr is just one of a host of people taking to social media to spread false information about queer people, one hopes that the multimillion-dollar companies facilitating this type of discrimination start taking GLAAD’s findings to heart. If they don’t, it will be up to LGBTQI+ people to make it abundantly clear that their inaction does not go unnoticed by this community.

After all, while the reach of social media makes it an effective way of spreading false information and hate, it can also serve as a tool to send a strong and decisive message far and wide – and especially to the social media giants that gain so much from queer people worldwide.

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