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After 'Don't Say Gay' bill passed, anti-LGBTQ 'grooming' rhetoric surged 400% online

In the weeks following the bill’s passage, an average of 6,607 tweets a day used slurs such as “groomer,” “pedophile” and “predator” in relation to the LGBTQ community.
A person walks near Twitter's headquarter in downtown San Francisco
A person walks near Twitter's headquarter in downtown San Francisco on Apr. 26, 2022.Amy Osborne / AFP via Getty Images file

Anti-LGBTQ hate surged online following the passage of a Florida law that limits classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity, a new report found.

This particular surge involves rhetoric implying that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people are “grooming” children and includes such slurs as “groomer,” “pedophile” and “predator” in relation to the LGBTQ community. 

The month after the Florida Senate passed the Parental Rights in Education bill, or what critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill,  on March 8,  tweets mentioning the LGBTQ community  alongside these slurs increased 406%, according to the report, which was conducted by the LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign and the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate.

The law, which took effect July 1, bans instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity “in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

To evaluate the increase in rhetoric related to “grooming”, researchers collected a sample of 989,547 tweets that were posted between Jan. 1 and July 27 and that mentioned the LGBTQ community alongside words including “groomer” and “pedophile.” They found that an average of 6,607 tweets a day used such rhetoric in the month after the bill passed, a significant increase from 1,307 tweets the month before. 

On March 28, when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed the bill into law, there was also a marked increase in the use of the “#OKGroomer” hashtag, which the report said was often used as a derogatory response to tweets from LGBTQ educators, organizations and health care providers, among others. On the day after DeSantis signed the bill, “OK groomer” tweets peaked with 9,219 total, or about one every nine seconds, the report found.

“Grooming” rhetoric was spread by a “small group of radical extremists as part of a coordinated and concerted effort to attack LGBTQ+ kids to rile up extreme members of their base,” the report said. 

Tweets from just 10 people — including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., and Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’ press secretary — were viewed an estimated 48 million times and were “responsible for driving” the “grooming” narrative, researchers found.

“We’re in the middle of a growing wave of hate and demonization targeting LGBTQ+ people — often distributed digitally by opportunistic politicians and so-called ‘influencers’ for personal gain,” Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, said in a statement, according to a press release. “Online hate and lies reflect and reinforce offline violence and hate. The normalization of anti-LGBTQ+ narratives in digital spaces puts LGBTQ+ people in danger.”

In an emailed statement, Pushaw stressed that Florida’s new law affects those in “kindergarten through third grade.” However, critics of the law argue the language can be applied to those beyond grade 3.

“By definition, then, opponents of the law support adults talking to young children about sex and gender behind their parents’ backs. If you know a politically correct word for such behavior, I’ll gladly use it instead,” she said. “There are groomers of all sexual orientations and gender identities. My tweets did not mention LGBTQ people at all. Florida’s parental rights law likewise does not single out any identity or orientation.” 

Pushaw added, “The only side playing into the hands of bigots, are the progressive activists who pretend that ‘grooming’ is somehow unique to the ‘LGBTQ community.’ It is not, and I do not understand why the Human Rights Campaign would want the public to think otherwise.”

A spokesperson for Greene did not answer questions about the report’s findings but encouraged NBC News to “be objective” and shared several links to the congresswoman’s Twitter posts and articles from the conservative news site Washington Examiner.

Boebert did not immediately return a request for comment.

Ahmed said Facebook and Twitter claim in their rules that they prohibit the use of “grooming” rhetoric to target LGBTQ people, but the report found that the platforms don’t always enforce those rules.

Researchers used Twitter’s “Report an issue” feature to report the 100 most-viewed tweets that used “grooming” rhetoric after July 21, when Twitter told the Daily Dot that calling transgender people “groomers” violates its policy against hateful conduct.

Twitter didn’t act on 99% of the 100 tweets, the report found.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Twitter confirmed that use of the term “groomer” is prohibited under the site’s policy when it is used as a descriptor “in the context of gender identity.” The spokesperson said Twitter remains committed to combating abuse motivated by hatred or intolerance.

Researchers identified a similar problem on Facebook, whose parent company, Meta, also told the Daily Dot that calling LGBTQ people “groomers” violates existing policy.

Researchers identified 59 paid ads on Facebook and Instagram that promote the narrative that the LGBTQ community and its allies are “grooming” children. After researchers reported them, Meta removed only one of the ads and has continued to accept and run other similar ads since, the report said.

The report also found that Meta profited off the ads. According to statistics from Meta’s Ad Library, the company accepted up to $24,987 in payment for the 59 ads, which received more than 2.1 million impressions, the report said.

“The clear message from social media giants is that they are willing to turn a blind eye,” Ahmed said. “LGTBQ+ rights have been transformed after decades of hard-won progress, but progress is fragile unless you continue to defend it.”

A Meta spokesperson said in an email, “We reviewed the ads flagged in the report and have taken action on any content that violates our policies.”

Joni Madison, interim president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement that the rise of online vitriol “doesn’t just have political implications — there are deadly, real world consequences as violent rhetoric leads to stigma, radicalization, and ultimately violence.”

Some LGBTQ people have reported the rhetoric being used against them in verbal attacks. In April, a gay couple said a man on an Amtrak train called them “rapists” and “pedophiles” in front of their children. The report noted that LGBTQ events over the last few months have also been targeted by white nationalist groups.

The report provides recommendations to Facebook and Twitter, including that they hire, train and support moderators to remove hate and enforce their community standards, act on hashtags that fuel anti-LGBTQ hate, and be liable for harm when they fail to enforce their community standards.

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