Transgender Facebook content dominated by right-wing sources, study finds

Over the course of a year, anti-trans Facebook posts earned more engagement than positive and neutral trans content combined, Media Matters for America found.
Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images
By Tim Fitzsimons

Anti-transgender Facebook content shared by right-wing news sources generated more engagement than content from pro-transgender or neutral sources combined, according to a Media Matters for America study of 225 viral social media posts.

That means the majority of Facebook interactions with those viral posts — over 43 million of 66 million shares, comments and reactions over the span of a year — were on items posted by anti-trans websites like LifeSiteNews, Daily Wire and Daily Caller, according to the report.

The majority of Facebook interactions with content about transgender topics were on items posted by virulently anti-trans websites.Media Matters for America

"Facebook users are getting a totally biased and factually inaccurate understanding of the multitude of issues that impact trans people," said Brennan Suen, Media Matters' LGBTQ program director and one of the study's authors. Suen pointed to an October Pew poll showing that a majority of Americans get news from Facebook.

In total, seven of the top 10 sources for interactions on popular transgender Facebook content were anti-trans sites. Just three LGBTQ-oriented sources appeared in the top 10: PinkNews, Gay Star News and NBC Out.

LifeSiteNews, Daily Wire and Daily Caller dominated these interactions.Media Matters for America

Trans activist and writer Raquel Willis said she was unsurprised by the finding that Facebook interactions about transgender issues are dominated by sources that oppose transgender rights and degrade transgender individuals.

“Narratives that further our demonization, that further confusion, are still the ones that often carry the most weight in our society,” Willis said. “Blood is on the hands of the Mark Zuckerbergs and the people who don’t want to hold these platforms to a humane standard.”

“Actual lives of marginalized people are at stake,” she added.

Suen said anti-transgender content that "lies about best practice medical care for trans youth" could "enable adults to do harm to their own children and deprive trans youth of affirmation and care that can be life saving."

"Transphobic discourse online contributes to this dangerous rejection of trans children, real world harassment of trans people and harmful policies — and it contributes to a social and political culture that continues to demonize and fail the trans community," Suen added.

Facebook did not respond to NBC News' request for comment on Media Matters' findings.

The Media Matters for America study examined 225 articles, blog posts and videos about transgender topics that had 100,000 or more Facebook interactions and were posted from February 2019 to this February. The liberal nonprofit used the social media analytics website BuzzSumo to identify the viral transgender-related content.

Fifty-six percent of these 225 primarily English-language articles, posts and videos were published by right-leaning sources, the report found. Conservative posts comprised the top five most-interacted-with pieces of trans content and 14 of the top 20.

LifeSiteNews, Daily Wire and Daily Caller dominated these interactions. Stories about transgender participation in sports and medical care were particularly high ranking, generating about 37 percent of all interactions, the report found.

Suen said that after Facebook’s “trending” news section caused a conservative uproar in 2016, CEO Mark Zuckerberg made efforts to cultivate relationships with media figures like Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson, both of whom are associated with some of the study’s top anti-transgender sites.

Suen said right-wing and anti-trans content flourishes on Facebook, in part, because the network has failed to fully crack down on “coordinated, inauthentic behavior,” which Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, defined as “when groups of pages or people work together to mislead others about who they are or what they are doing.”

Last October, Judd Legum, founder of the liberal news site ThinkProgress, reported in Popular Information that 14 large Facebook pages, like Conservative News (which has nearly 500,000 followers), all of which had no apparent link to the Daily Wire, would “exclusively promote content from the Daily Wire in a coordinated fashion.”

At roughly the same time, a viral, fake news story that inaccurately linked puberty blocker use in children to deaths in adult cancer patients was published by Daily Wire and went viral, amplified by its network of Facebook pages.

Following Legum’s investigation, Facebook pages like Conservative News, which had allegedly promoted Daily Wire's content in a coordinated fashion, now contain a disclaimer: “Confirmed Page Owner: DAILY WIRE."

In an op-ed published this month titled “Facebook Does Not Benefit From Hate,” the company's vice president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, wrote, “When content falls short of being classified as hate speech — or of our other policies aimed at preventing harm or voter suppression — we err on the side of free expression because, ultimately, the best way to counter hurtful, divisive, offensive speech, is more speech."

“Exposing it to sunlight is better than hiding it in the shadows,” added Clegg, a former deputy prime minister in the U.K.

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