Around Christmas Day, Karl Krause and Daan Colijn started receiving emails from their fans, telling them their pictures were being used to promote pedophilia in several viral posts on Twitter.
“They were outraged emails,” Krause said. “They were saying: ‘How can that be? You are not pro-pedophilia. I know that.’”
Krause and Colijn are gay travel bloggers who tell their followers of gay-friendly and LGBTQ-owned businesses and communities throughout the world. They had no idea their faces were being used to promote an idea they found abhorrent.
One of their pictures, which features Krause and Colijn kissing in front of a rainbow flag, had been stolen by a Twitter troll who went by the name “Alex,” an account that was created in December. The account then tweeted messages promoting pedophilia.
“It’s frustrating to see someone misusing our image for political purposes — basically supporting an argument against the LGBTQ community with our work,” Krause said.
The account successfully spread across Twitter the deliberately defamatory idea that pedophilia is an acceptable part of LGBTQ life. Over the last half-decade, that concept has become a staple of far-right internet trolls on websites like the fringe message board 4chan, and the troll’s message quickly gained internet traction.
Some far-right news websites wrote articles based on the tweet, including The Federalist Papers, which published a post with the headline, ”Resistance Member Says Pedophilia Is Sexual Orientation, Claims Bigotry.”
One tweet from the troll’s account, which used the handle @vaceyi, stated that “Pedophilia is a sexual orientation you bigots.” That tweet has drawn more than 16,000 replies and received attention on far-right parts of the internet, drawing scathing responses from right-wing commentator and former Major League Baseball pitcher Curt Schilling and "pizzagate" conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec, among others. They took the fake message seriously and used it to suggest that the LGBTQ community supports the sexual abuse of children.
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“They are actually trying to argue that pedophiles are an ‘oppressed minority,’” Posobiec wrote on Twitter, attaching screenshots of @vaceyi’s tweets. “Many warned this day would come.”
Various efforts to tie the LGBTQ community to pedophilia have been linked back to 4chan, including the creation of a fake rainbow flag for Gay Pride Month that supposedly was designed to show acceptance of pedophilia. The flag, and a fake “LGBTP” acronym, were debunked by the fact-checking organization Snopes. In 2016, a 4chan post stated “if they want to demand that society accept their horses--- identities, then it’s time we slip in one of our own” and implored users to “convince them pedos deserve rights too.”
Shortly after @vaceyi’s tweets went viral, one 4chan user posted Posobiec’s tweet mentioning the account, wondering if Posobiec knew that @vaceyi is a troll.
“Does [Posobiec] know he's being trolled by you guys and just going with it to look good? Or does he think the person tweeting this is serious?" the user asked.
The user behind @vaceyi did not respond to a request for comment.
The @vaceyi account used strategies that have become common among efforts to spread misinformation and propaganda on social media, building up a small following by tweeting pro-LGBTQ hashtags and retweeting gay and lesbian aid organizations before sending the pro-pedophilia messages.
Krause said he and his followers repeatedly reported the @vaceyi account using his identity to Twitter, which insisted he provide proof of his identity. The account later changed its profile picture to a stock photo of two black men kissing.
Twitter permanently suspended @Vaceyi on Thursday night after NBC News asked about the account. Twitter rules do not allow the promotion of child sexual exploitation. The company's rules also bars impersonation and hateful conduct.
"This type of deliberate attempt to undermine and disrupt the health of the public conversation has absolutely no place on our service," a Twitter spokesperson said in an emailed statement. "Coordinated activity of this nature — including running multiple accounts and adopting fake personae — is a violation of the Twitter Rules. We are aggressively taking action pursuant with our policies."
Zeke Stokes, the vice president of programs for the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD, told NBC News that platforms need to work faster to cut down on this sort of defamation against the LGBTQ community.
“Social media platforms have the right and the responsibility to protect their products from being weaponized and their users from being targeted by those who wish to spread hate, misinformation and malicious rhetoric,” Stokes said. “Anti-LGBTQ leaders have long tried to surface these debunked lies about LGBTQ people despite the fact that our culture knows these fear tactics are blatantly false.”
Smears that have attempted to tie the LGBTQ community to pedophilia are decades old, according to Thomas G. Plante, a psychologist and professor at Santa Clara University who has studied the psychopathology behind pedophilia for more than 30 years.
“The critical thing is that sexual orientation in and of itself is not a risk factor for psychopathology for anything, let alone pedophilia,” Plante said in an interview. “The majority of people who are pedophiles are step-fathers, older brothers, next door neighbors, or others like that. It has to do with access, impulse control problems, and other kinds of psychopathology.”
The recent spate of anti-science talking points about pedophilia from extremists “drives me kind of crazy,” Plante said.
“You’ve got plenty of people out there who are experts in this stuff, who treat and evaluate people,” Plante said. “All of that gets discarded because there’s someone out there who has an anonymous Twitter account who’s much louder.”
In the meantime, Krause said this experience has emboldened him to continue his work, showing spaces gay travelers can go without harassment through out the world.
“We see our work as activism,” said Krause. “People should know about this part of our work. Don’t fall for this other thing. We try to tell people that we just want to be treated equally.”