May 27, 2021

As Bills Sweep Statehouses, Facebook Profits From Harmful Anti-Trans Ads 

A Facebook logo created from pictures of Facebook users worldwide is pictured in the company's data center.
Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

Just after National Coming Out Day, Facebook ran several video advertisements supporting transgender and non-binary users. Lee spoke about how meaningful it is to feel they are exactly who they want to be; Kite wished for a more inclusive world.

“We’re all better off when we understand each other more,” the videos proclaimed.

Facebook, which directed users to the National Center for Transgender Equality for more information, spent at least $125,000 on each ad; they garnered more than 1 million impressions. Less than a year later, however, different ads appeared.

“Can a man be a woman?” conservative commentator Ben Shapiro asked in a minute-long video ad. He suggested that transgender people suffered from a disorder and that society was doing “lasting psychological damage” to children by “propagandizing” to them about gender identity.

Similar advertisements followed. As anti-trans bills sweep through statehouses across the nation, Decode Democracy found numerous examples of anti-trans ads that have run since the beginning of the year and appear to violate Facebook policies. A number of ads — almost all focused on transgender children — engaged in misgendering, deadnaming, denying trans identities, or argued against trans children’s right to medical care. Many were actively derogatory and derisive in tone. Altogether, the ads received more than four million impressions.

“These ads are harmful,” said Dr. Jamison Green, co-chair of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s ethics committee. “This is true no matter how many trans people there are in the world. But the fact that trans people are very marginalized, and that they are very vulnerable, means that to have media like this on Facebook bearing down on them is very very frightening, especially for young people.”

When presented with a list of dozens of advertisements Decode Democracy had flagged as problematic, Facebook chose to comment on only three of them — the Ben Shaprio advertisement, an advertisement from Prager U that pushes a theory on gender identity based on a single flawed study not recognized by any major professional association, and an advertisement linking to a parody story that refers to a transgender individual as “it.” Facebook noted that only one of the ads violated policy — the parody story because of the use of the term “it.”

Policy Problems

Facebook’s advertising policies ostensibly prohibit hate speech and disinformation on its platform. The social media company claims it does not allow “dehumanizing speech, harmful stereotypes, statements of inferiority, expressions of contempt, disgust or dismissal, cursing, and calls for exclusion or segregation” based on race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity. It also prohibits ads that “include claims debunked by third-party fact checkers or, in certain circumstances, claims debunked by organizations with particular expertise.”

In e-mails to Decode Democracy, the company said it would remove content claiming that trans people do not exist, or content claiming that trans people are mentally inferior or have a mental disorder. But Facebook didn’t explain why the Shapiro videos weren’t removed. Facebook also didn’t explain if common, anti-trans speech like misgendering or deadnaming violate its policies.

In addition to ads on Facebook that contained disinformation or hate speech directly in the advertising copy, Decode Democracy found numerous ads that linked to content featuring hate speech, disinformation, or both. Facebook said ads linking out to content violating policies are not permitted on the platform, but the company failed to comment on any of the ads Decode Democracy flagged. It had not taken any action at the time of publication.

“We know that Facebook doesn’t really care about misinformation writ large,” said T.J. Billard, executive director of the Center for Applied Transgender Studies at Northwestern University. “They will change things when there’s external pressure, but there’s not really any internal pressure. They really won’t deal with misinformation when it doesn’t relate to partisan politics. … Their failure to do anything about trans misinformation fits a broader pattern of a failure to protect people from marginalized identity categories.”

While Facebook claims to use a combination of artificial intelligence and human review to ensure ads don’t violate its standards, the system is heavily flawed, and enforcement is often left up to independent monitors.

“As long as Facebook has no clear mechanism to detect and bar harmful ads, the onus is on individuals and groups like GLAAD to search Facebook’s Advertising Library and report content,” the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) said in its Social Media Safety Index released earlier this month.

Recently, Facebook unveiled a new transparency center, where it reminded users that its enforcement will never be perfect.

Advertisements and Politics

In addition to The Daily Wire and Prager U, which were the two top advertisers by both money and volume, Decode Democracy found ads run by Public Advocate of the U.S., Alliance Defending Freedom and the Illinois Family Institute. The latter three have all been designated anti-gay hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Family Policy Alliance, a partner of the fundamentalist Christian group Focus on the Family, also ran numerous ads on the issue of trans girls competing in girls’ sports.

***A list of ads Decode Democracy found can be seen here***

Transgender athletes especially have become targets in a conservative culture war. In September, Media Matters For America reported that the American Principles Project (APP) was running several ads that attacked trans athletes, and spread disinformation about gender-affirming medical care as part of a test campaign to gauge its effectiveness in turning out conservative voters and suppressing moderate votes. Now, the issue has drawn the attention of lawmakers, with many state legislatures targeting transgender individuals.

“It is scary the way these narratives complement the bills,” said Dr. Jason Rafferty, lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ transgender youth policy statement. “Gender affirmative care is very personal, the plans we develop are very specific to the goals and needs of each of our patients. When we try to regulate gender care, it turns this into a black-and-white issue, which it’s not.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health have all spoken out against the state bills. Yet many of the arguments for the legislation are present in the Facebook advertising content reviewed by Decode Democracy, including arguments that children are too young to know their own gender and that the often lifesaving, gender-affirming medical care is harmful.

“When you have a platform that is responsible for putting so much content in front of people’s eyes, they absolutely have to take responsibility for what they are funneling to people,” said Gillian Branstetter, a spokeswoman for the National Women’s Law Center. “These narratives are harmful first and foremost because they are false. But the harm that I see as a trans person myself is that this messaging portrays us as infectious. It portrays my life and my identity as a contagion that must be avoided.

“We know that trans kids are some of the most at-risk children. The good news is that we also know that accepting them for who they are, helping them to get affirming health care if and when it’s right for them, can have a demonstrable and proven impact on their well-being, allowing them to thrive as much as their peers.”

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