'The bar is low for the social media industry': Top platforms are unsafe for LGBTQ community, new report says

Noah Wagoner remembers the "disgusting" online conversation all too vividly.

In July 2020, the Seattle-based LGBTQ+ educator and activist was having an intense discussion on Facebook about Black Lives Matter and police reform with a person he knew. Then, the conversation turned toxic, and Wagoner was harassed for being transgender.  

The exchange went from being "fairly innocuous evolving into blatant transphobia," Wagoner recalled, and the graphic posts were "very egregious" and unsuitable to print. Wagoner blocked the user and reported the incident to Facebook before removing the posts. He said the social network informed him that the posts weren't a violation of its policies.

"It wasn't surprising (Facebook) didn't do anything, but it was infuriating," said Wagoner, who is encouraged that GLAAD, the LGBTQ advocacy organization, is taking the social media platforms to task, calling for extensive reform of how it treats its LGBTQ users.

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According to GLAAD's first Social Media Index report released Monday, the platforms have a "circuit breaker" to slow down the harassment, bullying, and misinformation and discrimination, but they don't want to do it because they are monetizing off of it, making the "entire sector effectively unsafe" for LGBTQ users and other marginalized communities.

'The great culture creator of today'

The 50-page report cites numerous problems and offers dozens of recommendations for major platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and TikTok.

GLAAD's report comes a few months after those surveyed in a Pew Research Center study in January said nearly 80% of social media companies do only a fair or poor job at addressing online harassment or bullying on their platforms. The Pew Center study said about 68% of lesbian, gay or bisexual adults who said they have been harassed online think it occurred because of their sexual orientation. 

GLAAD cites a report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) that for a third straight year, LGBTQ+ respondents reported disproportionately higher rates of harassment – 64% compared with 41% for the overall general population.

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"These platforms have all of the tools at their disposal to stop the abuse, and they choose not to do anything. Each time they choose not to, it harms our community," GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis told USA TODAY. "Social media has moved into the space of being the great culture creator of today, and when you have a community that has been the No. 1 target for harassment, it's time we hold them accountable." 

Among the recommendations for the four major platforms:

  • Greater protection of LGBTQ+ users in community guidelines.
  • Mitigating bias in algorithms and artificial intelligence.
  • Using more human moderators to reduce the posts and spread of hate speech, extremist rhetoric and misinformation.
  • Addressing privacy and outing (including data-privacy & micro-targeting).
  • More transparency, and even more LGBTQ hiring in several roles, including leadership and inclusion.

Facebook, YouTube and Twitter said in separate statements to USA TODAY they want to make their platforms safer for all, including the LGBTQ+ community.

Facebook said it believes deeply in the representation and visibility for the LGBTQ+ community that GLAAD champions.

The big four react

"At Facebook, we want to make both our platform and our workplace safe and inclusive places for the LGBTQ+ community," said Alex Schultz, Facebook's chief marketing officer and vice president of Analytics. "We invest in AI to remove hate speech, produce online safety guides, develop message request blocking tools on Instagram and voice our support for the Equality Act to protect the vulnerable like trans youth and trans women of color."

A YouTube spokesperson said the platform has made "significant progress in our ability to quickly remove hateful and harassing content against the LGBTQ+ community."

A Twitter spokesperson said the company knows the public conversation reaches its full potential only when every community feels safe and comfortable participating. "We welcome GLAAD's initiative and the opportunity to better understand the experiences and needs of the LGBTQ+ communities on our service," the spokesperson said. “We’ve engaged with GLAAD to better understand their requests and are committed to an open dialogue to better inform our work to support LGBTQ safety."

TikTok said in a statement to Axios Sunday that the company is "committed to supporting and uplifting LGBTQ+ voices on and off the platform and we care deeply about fostering a welcoming and supportive experience for everyone. We share GLAAD's dedication to the safety of the LGBTQ+ community and will continue working with GLAAD and other LGBTQ+ organizations to help inform and strengthen our work."

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Logan Lynn, an LGBTQ singer and musician, who has been harassed and bullied online for his provocative short film that accompanied his double album in 2019, said GLAAD's report is like an all-hands-on-deck call to arms that puts the platforms on notice. 

"To have us all link arms and say 'enough' is long past due," said Lynn, public relations director for .gay, a site that celebrates and supports the LGBTQ community. "I'm super moved that it's going to happen."

Rethinking digital advocacy

The U.S. view of social media platforms lags compared with European countries that regulate them, said Lucy Bernholz, director of the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford University and a member of the GLAAD report's advisory committee. 

"Our mental model hasn't caught up with the role these social media companies play in our lives. They started out as places to share what we're eating, where we're going and who we're hanging out with, but now they are all-encompassing," Bernholz said. "Now, kids can't participate in group activities without planning on Facebook, Twitter has vastly changed how we get our news and conduct our business, and Google is a must-have for almost everything we want to know."

Bernholz said the social media platforms have "basically made themselves the equivalent of our roads, sewers and utilities" to get where we want to go, and the report is an opportunity to "rethink" digital advocacy. 

"We need to collectively recognize and set boundaries on how these companies should work for us," Bernholz said. "These companies want to make it feel like 'it's just me,' but if we see the harassment and abuse on these platforms as a shared societal problem, we get shared solutions and regulations. And that's what these companies do not want to see."

The trans community bears the brunt of it

Ellis and Bernholz said the trans community is the most harassed among the LGBTQ+ group. 

Wagoner said he's not surprised as his community is heavily targeted despite their very visible participation on the platforms.

"The users are the commodity. We are the service, the product, so to speak. If there is something that can potentially turn away customers, there's no incentive to change your behavior when the incentive is money," Wagoner said. "Since users don't pay any money to use the platforms, it's no skin off their backs."

Initially, GLAAD was going to grade the social media platforms with its first extensive examination, but "none of them were going to pass," Ellis said. Instead, the report serves as a baseline for the companies, which have included many GLAAD members on their trust and safety councils, Ellis said.  The report should be considered as "a blueprint" for the social media platforms to improve, Ellis said, and GLAAD intends to give out grades in next year's report.

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"You can't move what you don't measure, and until we put a measurement metric in place, we can hold them accountable," Ellis said. "Let's build a roadmap for success, not just for the LGBTQ community, but for all marginalized communities."  

Jennifer Grygiel, a social media professor at Syracuse University, said it's important for advocacy organizations such as GLAAD to help hold institutions accountable, and they must be ready to be a harsh critic.

"The bar is low for the social media industry, and that's a problem, and sometimes platforms get credit for doing anything at all, but it doesn't mean it's enough," Grygiel said. "But it would look pretty bad for GLAAD to have red thumbs down for every indicator for all platforms, but that's pretty much where things are at."

Ellis said GLAAD's social media index is a model similar to what the organization has done to hold Hollywood and the media more accountable regarding LGBTQ inclusivity and representation.