Anti-LGBTQ disinformation surges online after US shootings

Anti-LGBTQ disinformation surges online after US shootings
Jan 1970

Washington (AFP) - Deadly mass shootings in the United States have fueled a torrent of online disinformation targeting an unlikely group: transgender people.

Before police identified the gunman who killed five people Monday at a bank in Louisville, Kentucky, users on the fringe internet forum 4chan speculated that the shooter was transgender.

Once Connor Sturgeon was named, right-wing commentators such as former Donald Trump aide Sebastian Gorka shared screenshots of the suspect's LinkedIn page, pointing out that it included his pronouns.

The narrative is the latest to fuel anti-LGBTQ disinformation on platforms such as Twitter, which analysts say has increased sharply since Elon Musk bought the company.

After a late-March shooting at an elementary school in Nashville, Tennessee, a former "RuPaul's Drag Race" contestant and transgender activist who goes by the name Miss Peppermint and is based in New York said she was shocked to see her name and photo above a tweet she never wrote.

"At first I thought that I must have been hacked," Peppermint told AFP. "Clearly I didn't make that statement. It's a statement that I would never have made."

The tweet said transgender people planning to "commit a heinous crime" should "clear your social media" to avoid potential blowback. Several conservative influencers shared it after police identified Nashville shooter Audrey Hale as transgender.

Over the course of two days, Peppermint faced a barrage of harassment.

"I was receiving actual death threats, people saying we're coming with our guns for you, we know where you are," she said.

The disinformation that spread after the Nashville shooting came from "very online, right-wing troll accounts, who are always ready to capitalize on an emergency or a disaster," said Heron Greenesmith, a senior research analyst at Political Research Associates.

Activists say they worry about more fallout from such falsehoods, which come as more US states pass bills limiting gender-affirming health care and LGBTQ rights.

"It is awful that anti-trans extremists are hijacking this moment to baselessly lie, spread disinformation and attack trans people, including Peppermint," said Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, an LGBTQ advocacy organization.

Lack of moderation

Anti-LGBTQ disinformation thrives on Twitter because "the platform prioritizes conflict," Greenesmith said.

Twitter has seen a spike in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric since Musk's takeover of the company, according to a March report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH).

Posts mentioning the narrative that LGBTQ people are "grooming" children jumped 119 percent between October 2022 and March 2023, the group found. Five accounts promoting the claims generate up to $6.4 million per year in ad revenue, according to CCDH's estimates.

These accounts consist of right-wing influencers, some of whom were once suspended from Twitter for breaching the company's hate speech policies. They were reinstated after Musk purchased the company.

Exacerbating the spread of disinformation is Twitter's updated verification policy, which no longer distinguishes between public figures and users who subscribe to Twitter Blue.

"Verification was a piece of content moderation. Another piece that seems to be falling by the wayside," Greenesmith said.

Twitter Blue allows users to pay $8 per month to display a blue checkmark on their profile. But some have taken advantage of the new system to impersonate celebrities -- including Peppermint.

"While it hurts to get lied about, it's even worse to see anti-trans activists using this moment to spread lies and disinformation about trans leaders," she said in an Instagram post addressing the tweet impersonating her.

Twitter responded to an AFP request for comment with a poop emoji, an automatic response that Musk launched in March.