Smartphone users who have downloaded TikTok, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram apps may be tempting fate when it comes to safety, depending on how they identify.
A new report says those five major social media apps have each received a failing grade, like an “F” on a report card. They all fell short of 50 points out of 100 in a measurement of a dozen indicators of best practices and safety guidelines for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer users. To use a sports analogy, each one ranked below .500 on a new LGBTQ+ scorecard of social media safety.
The group keeping score is GLAAD, the world’s leading LGBTQ+ media advocacy organization, which on Wednesday issued its second annual Social Media Safety Index.
How GLAAD kept score
“When we released the 2021 GLAAD Social Media Safety Index (SMSI) report last May, we offered a baseline snapshot of the landscape for LGBTQ social media safety, as well as a 50-page roadmap packed with valuable guidance and recommendations for the five major platforms,” said Jenni Olson, Senior Director, Social Media Safety at GLAAD. “While some of the companies took to heart some of that guidance, for the most part they did not implement our recommendations.”
“I have to say that while I imagined the companies would not do great in the ratings, I was actually surprised at how poorly they all did,” Olson told me. “I was surprised that all of their scores were below a 50 out of a possible score of 100.”
GLAAD’s report calls its SMSI the social media industry’s “first standard for tackling online hate and intolerance,” with the stated goal of creating a safer experience for LGBTQ+ users.
“Today’s political and cultural landscapes demonstrate the real-life harmful effects of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and misinformation online,” said GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis in a statement. “The hate and harassment, as well as misinformation and flat-out lies about LGBTQ people, that go viral on social media are creating real-world dangers, from legislation that harms our community to the recent threats of violence at Pride gatherings. Social media platforms are active participants in the rise of anti-LGBTQ cultural climate and their only response can be to urgently create safer products and policies, and then enforce those policies.”
In its report, GLAAD explained that its own scorecard started with the Ranking Digital Rights Big Tech Scorecard, the annual evaluation of the world’s most powerful digital platforms, reviewing their policies and practices affecting people’s rights to freedom of expression and privacy. GLAAD then worked with the Goodwin Simon Strategic Research team, as well as its own expert stakeholders and advisors, to revise and refine those 12 indicators.
GLAAD recruited some big names for its advisory panel: Nobel Prize Laureate and journalist Maria Ressa, nonbinary performer ALOK, trans nonbinary journalist and activist Evan Greer, podcast host and New York magazine editor-at-large Kara Swisher as well as a half-dozen other academics, activists and executives.
Among the 12 indicators that generated the lowest scores are “targeting deadnaming and misgendering prohibition,” how well the companies train their content moderators and efforts by the platforms to “stop demonetizing or removing legitimate LGBTQ content.” The organization notes that the indicators only address some of the issues impacting LGBTQ+ users.
Which one is the worst of the worst?
With all five apps failing to score even 50 out of 100 points, there were no winners.
GLAAD’s scorecard ranked TikTok, owned by China’s ByteDance, worst of all, with a score of 42.51 out of 100.
TikTok earned a perfect score for its policy commitment to protect LGBTQ users, as did all five platforms, as well as another perfect score for targeting deadnaming and misgendering—something Facebook and Instagram and YouTube got dinged for, with a score of zero. “It was good to see TikTok follow our recommendation earlier this year,” said Olson.
But TikTok finished last because of its own zero scores for lacking a diverse workforce, its shady relationship with third-party advertisers and failure to inform TikTok users how to control the collection of information about their sexual orientation or gender identity.
I asked Olson if GLAAD is concerned about TikTok’s Chinese ownership.
“While there may be legitimate information security concerns related to TikTok being a Chinese-owned company, I think it is extremely important to keep in mind two things: One is that with all of these companies we have really very little visibility or reason to trust any of them when it comes to data security—recall Cambridge Analytica,” she said. “And secondly there are many examples of media and pundits offering takes about TikTok being a Chinese company, where they are clearly tapping into a xenophobic, anti-Asian sentiment that is just really irresponsible and not thoughtful.”
Twitter finished second-worst, 4th out of 5, with a final score of 44.7 out of 100. Five times the bird app scored a zero, including for failing to provide users with a guide to adding their pronouns to their profiles, something former suitor Elon Musk often mocked before he decided against buying Twitter. Olson called that development “a huge relief with regard to LGBTQ safety on the platform, as Musk had clearly expressed repeated sentiments about eliminating hate speech policy protections and has repeatedly posted transphobic and other offensive items over the years.”
YouTube, owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, and Meta’s Facebook, placed third and second respectively.
The other Meta brand, Instagram, finished in first place, with only that one zero score and a mix of scores in the other 11 categories, to wind up with the best score of the five major platforms: 48.38 out of 100.
But they could and should do so much better, Olson told me.
“If Meta is truly sincere in its repeated assertions with regard to Facebook and Instagram being safe spaces for LGBTQ people, it would be hard to understand how targeted misgendering and deadnaming would be allowed under their policies,” she said. “That kind of hateful expression seems to be directly in conflict with this wonderful statement on their policy page:
“We believe that people use their voice and connect more freely when they don’t feel attacked on the basis of who they are. That is why we don’t allow hate speech on Facebook. It creates an environment of intimidation and exclusion, and in some cases may promote offline violence.”
“Again, it is hard to understand how these companies can say things like this on the one hand, but when it comes to actually protecting us there are just so many ways that they don’t.”
A spokesperson for Meta sent me this statement after publication of this story:
“We prohibit violent or dehumanizing content directed against people who identify as LGBTQ+ and remove claims about someone’s gender identity upon their request. We also work closely with our partners in the civil rights community to identify additional measures we can implement through our products and policies.’
What is the danger here?
The report makes clear, 2022 has seen an unprecedented surge of hateful, violent, and false rhetoric hurled at this community, and not just in the U.S., says Ellis.
“LGBTQ people are under attack right now, all across the globe. Since the start of 2022, Republican lawmakers have proposed 325 anti-LGBTQ bills, 130 of which specifically target the rights of transgender people, especially trans youth,” she said.
“From maliciously characterizing LGBTQ people as “groomers” or pedophiles, to deceptive disinformation about gender affirming care for trans youth, this kind of toxic and dangerous content is widely circulated on social media platforms,” according to the report.
“Even just in these past few weeks, as we were trying to finish up the report, we kept seeing these breaking news stories like the various attacks by right wing extremist groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Front at Prides and Drag Queen Story Hours—including an attack just 30 minutes from my house,” said Olson.
So what does that have to do with these five platforms?
“There are specific social media accounts that are absolutely fostering this offline activity,” added Olson. “These companies have an inherent financial conflict of interest, which provides at least a partial explanation for their refusal to categorize certain content as harmful or to remove it from their platforms once it has been identified,” according to the GLAAD report.
“Attacking vulnerable groups of people as a political strategy, and stoking fear and hatred about them, is something we’ve seen across history,” said Ellis. “It’s a reprehensible practice—and the spread of such hate today is further facilitated by social media platforms. This type of rhetoric and ‘content’ that dehumanizes LGBTQ people has real-world impact. These malicious and false narratives, relentlessly perpetuated by right wing media and politicians, continue to negatively impact public understanding of LGBTQ people—driving hatred, and violence, against our community.”
Ellis did not hold back in accusing the social media giants of misplaced priorities.
“At this point, after their years of empty apologies and hollow promises, we must also confront the knowledge that social media platforms and companies are prioritizing profit over LGBTQ safety and lives,”she said. “This is unacceptable.”
Safer social media
The message GLAAD is sending to all five platforms, as well as others not surveyed, like Snapchat, Spotify, Amazon and Zoom, are laid out in its report. Here are the organization’s five recommendations for improving social media safety for the LGBTQ+ community, as explained in its report:
- Improve the design of algorithms that currently circulate and amplify harmful content, extremism, and hate.
- Train moderators to understand the needs of LGBTQ users, and to moderate across all languages, cultural contexts, and regions.
- Be transparent with regard to content moderation, community guidelines and terms of service policy implementation, and algorithm designs.
- Strengthen and enforce existing community guidelines and terms of service that protect LGBTQ people and others.
- Respect data privacy, especially where LGBTQ people are vulnerable to serious harms and violence. This includes ceasing the practice of targeted surveillance advertising, in which companies use powerful algorithms to recommend content to users in order to maximize profit.
What’s the takeaway? Olson offered this:
“I think the takeaway from the whole scorecard is that the industry as a whole is failing LGBTQ users,” she said. “For every area where you can say that one of them did poorly in a certain area, that same platform may have also done better in a separate area—for instance, both TikTok and Twitter did also add a prohibition against so-called “conversion therapy” content to their ads policy this year.
“But I honestly think the biggest takeaway, and we have a whole section of the report devoted to this, is that we are long overdue for thoughtfully crafted regulatory oversight or regulatory solutions that will force these companies to be accountable. GLAAD and other civil society organizations will continue to press the platforms to voluntarily make improvements, but as is true of every other industry—they must be compelled to make their products safe.
“These are billion dollar companies and they have demonstrated repeatedly that they actually do have the ability to implement mitigations to make their products safer. For example in the lead up to the 2020 election, Facebook changed their algorithms to reduce the spread of low-quality content like misinformation, extremism and hate—this also reduced engagement which reduced revenue. Because, yes, making platforms safer means they also make a little bit less money—so, not surprisingly, over and over again they prioritize profits over public safety.
“The way we think of this with other industries that are actually regulated is that the companies simply are forced to absorb the extra costs of creating safe products—adding catalytic converters to cars in the 1970s, not dumping toxic chemicals into our public waterways, putting warning labels on cigarettes—all of these things made these industries less profitable for the companies and more safe for the general public.”
Find out more about the recommendations and the scorecard: Read the full report by clicking here.