How Social Media Is Silencing LGBT Voices

Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr—they’re a lifeline. But are they being too hasty in the name of fighting hate speech?

For some time now, LGBT Facebook users have reported being blocked or suspended for what the social media giant calls “abusive content.” In June, Lisa Vogel, co-founder of the Michigan Womyn’s Festival, reported Facebook temporarily deactivated her account for “posting the word dyke too many times during gay Pride month.”

Vogel is hardly alone: Atheist blogger Greta Christina was banned from the site for a week after posting a photo with her wife taken at San Francisco’s Dyke March.

“I’m not the only person things like this have happened to,” Christina wrote in a June 25 post. “Meanwhile, people reporting overt racism or death threats are told it’s not a violation. Facebook needs to fix this, stat.”

The NYC Dyke Bar Takeover group, which organizes events for lesbians in New York, was unpublished in May. Facebook claimed the page constituted “hate speech.”

“Reclaiming words and history to stand up for ourselves and our community is a long-standing action. A way to say that you can’t hurt me with that word and it holds power,” wrote page admin Alana In. “The page has been used to share community accomplishments and events, nothing more… Help us keep the page and tell Facebook they can’t erase us.”

And Loretta Chung, an organizer with NYC’s Dyke Disco, told NewNowNext that the monthly queer dance party wasn’t allowed to advertise on Facebook because of its name. (When organizers complained, the group was reinstated after 72 hours.)

As most lesbians use it, “dyke” is not a slur—it’s an identity that’s been reclaimed for decades. (And affirmed by the Supreme Court when it ruled against banning Dykes on Bikes from trademarking its name.) But ex-Trump advisor Steve Bannon also once referred to students of the Seven Sisters schools as “a bunch of dykes.”

Then it was used to deride, dismiss, and dehumanize.

With nearly 2 billion members on the site every day, Facebook’s moderators can’t parse the difference between “dyke march” and “a bunch of dykes.” Is the solution to open the floodgates and let all language fly on social media, or to accept a certain amount of censorship?

Gerenme via Getty Images

Former Vice writer Mitchell Sunderland was suspended several times in 2014 for using “faggot” in a way he described as “playful.”

“I can understand why Facebook would block a heterosexual who said faggot—at Catholic school, straight boys used the word to make fun of me on the playground nearly every day,” Sunderland wrote. “But… I always use the homophobic slur in a joking or prideful way, robbing it of its harmful meaning.” Sunderland argues Facebook should have realized he self-identifies as a gay man and understood he wasn’t being insulting.

In September, author Eric Rosswood was prohibited from promoting his new book, The Ultimate Guide for Gay Dads, on Facebook. (Rosswood couldn’t use the book’s name in the frame title, and couldn’t use “gay” as a search tag.)

Even more surreally, a British Facebook user was locked out of his account for 12 hours in 2013 after claiming that he likes “faggots.” (He was referring to the traditional minced pork dish popular in his homeland.)

But the LGBT community isn’t united in how to police language: In 2013, Minnesotan Christopher Rathbun launched a Change.org petition calling for “fag,” “faggot” and “dyke” to be classified as hate speech on Facebook. When Rathbun reported someone using “fag” in a post about marriage equality in Minnesota, he was told it didn’t violate the company’s community standards on hate speech.

What makes Facebook’s policy so frustrating is not that LGBT users are being censored (inadvertently or not), but that the rules are enforced arbitrarily: A recent ProPublica study uncovered that Facebook’s hate-speech guidelines apply to characteristics like gender and race, but not what Facebook deems “subsets” of the population.

So when Rep. Clay Higgins said the U.S. should slaughter “radicalized” Muslims in the wake of the London terror attacks—“Hunt them, identify them, and kill them”—it wasn’t blocked. But when Black Lives Matter activist Didi Delgado declared, “All white people are racist. Start from this reference point, or you’ve already failed,” the post was removed and her account was deactivated for a week.

What was Facebook’s rationale? Delgado’s statement was directed at all whites, while Higgins was only targeting “radicalized” Muslims for extermination. (By that standard, female drivers and gay teachers wouldn’t be shielded from harassment, either.)

Part of the problem is how Facebook looks at the content that appears on your Timeline: The company estimates it deletes 288,000 posts a month for violating community standards.

That works out to about 10,000 every single day.

JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

Currently Facebook has 4,500 people on its community operations team, which means those workers often have less than 10 seconds to make a decision. Even if Facebook hires another 3,000 moderators, as Mark Zuckerberg himself promised in May, the sheer amount of content is staggering.

In addition, many of these employees work in places like Hyderabad, India—where American idioms and culture mores may get lost in translation.

Facebook declined to respond to requests for an interview, but Richard Allan, vice president of public policy for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, admitted in a post on Facebook’s Newsroom that “there is no universally accepted answer for when something crosses the line.”

Of course Facebook isn’t the only social media platform running afoul of the LGBT community: Steph Frosch, a.k.a. ElloSteph, quit YouTube this spring after her videos were flagged under “Restricted Mode,” making them unsuitable for monetization. Other users said many of their posts, or their entire channel in some cases, were restricted even though they were completely innocent.

After public outcry, YouTube updated its guidelines to allow LGBT users to discuss “discrimination and violence they’ve faced,” but queer vloggers say they continue to see a massive decline in views.

And in June, an update to Tumblr’s Safe Mode started filtering out innocuous LGBT content, despite being intended only to address pornographic images. “The major issue was some Tumblrs had marked themselves as “Adult/NSFW” (now “Explicit”) as a courtesy to their fellow users,” the site explained in a statement. “And their perfectly safe posts were getting marked sensitive unintentionally. That should never have happened. We’re sorry.” (Tumblr now says it will mark posts as sensitive on a case-by-case basis, not based on where they came from.)

Queer Twitter users also report that tweets, including ones using the word “dyke,” having been targeted, as well.

Twitter’s Safety mode purports to filter sensitive content, but a NewNowNext tweet about the MTV Movie and TV Awards nominating Moonlight’s gay kiss was censored.

A photo of actors Ashton Sanders and Jharrel Jerome kissing was replaced with a blue square with text indicating the image might disturb sensitive users.

Just this week, after Twitter announced new measures to tighten up spam, violent language and hate speech, users pointed out that #bisexual was turning up zero results. (“Transsexual” and “transsexuality” were also reportedly filtered out.

Even reporting on the issue of social-media censorship can get you censored: In a piece for Slate, NNN writer Trish Bendix reported on Facebook’s crackdown on the word “dyke.” When she posted that piece on her personal Facebook page, though, it was taken down by moderators.

To avoid being banned, some users have begun to self-censor or use clever workarounds: In her June post, Vogel used a hashtag in lieu of the “Y” in dyke. A friend of Sunderland’s recommended he switch the “Gs” in faggot to sixes.

That may help address the solution in the short-term, but queer social media users appear to be at an impasse. Is the solution to open the floodgates and let all language fly on social media, or to accept a certain amount of inadvertent censorship by well-intentioned (if clueless) moderators? And how much contextual understanding can we expect those moderators to have?

Mistakes will continue to happen. And to a certain extent, errors in judgment are a product of a system that remains, despite its best efforts, all too human. But LGBT users shouldn’t have to choose between a hate speech free-for-all and forfeiting spaces where they can express themselves authentically—especially considering that many users don’t have that freedom elsewhere.

For those in oppressive or isolated areas, platforms Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the like act as a lifeline. For a closeted gay Mormon in Utah or a transgender woman in Malaysia, these platforms connect them to others like themselves and let them voice to their experiences using language that represents how they see the world. Yes, that language may include phrases like “faggot” and “dyke.” That may cause moderators to wince—but it’s their truth to share.

As social media grows, it has the responsibility to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse global community. Smarter moderation isn’t just good business, it’s imperative for LGBT people who look to Facebook and Twitter for support, solace, and even survival.

Nico Lang is a staff writer at INTO, where he covers politics, international LGBTQ issues, and the Amy Adams beat.
@Nico_Lang