50.50: Opinion

Anti-trans activists are using ‘mirror propaganda’. Here’s how to spot it

People claiming to be ‘silenced’ are being featured in national mainstream media platforms. There’s a word for that

Natacha Kennedy
5 December 2022, 6.00am
Hundreds of trans rights protesters gathered outside Broadcasting House, the BBC’s headquarters in central London, 8 January 2022
Bex Wade @bexwade. All rights reserved

The recent backlash against Graham Norton’s entirely reasonable suggestion that the media talks to more trans people was more revealing than people think.

He came dangerously close to exposing organised transphobia’s core campaign strategy, something they don’t want people talking about. In collaboration with mainstream media, its main strategy has been to liberally platform anti-trans narratives, hermetically exclude trans perspectives, and at the same time accuse trans people of ‘silencing’ transphobes.

For example, a transphobic group holds a rally somewhere – maybe a couple of dozen transphobes in a draughty church hall. There’s a protest outside. A journalist, with confected faux-indignation, then claims trans people are ‘silencing’ them.

Those claiming to be ‘silenced’ are then featured in every national mainstream media platform, something that caught the ire of Sara Ahmed, an independent academic and former professor of race and cultural studies at Goldsmiths University of London: “Whenever people keep being given a platform to say they have no platform, or whenever people speak endlessly about being silenced, you not only have a performative contradiction; you are witnessing a mechanism of power.”

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There is a name for this mechanism of power: ‘mirror propaganda’. Mirror propaganda means doing to your enemies what you are falsely accusing them of doing to you. So the media creates the myth that trans people are silencing anti-trans activists, while the reality is that every major national media outlet in the UK, from The Guardian and The Times to the Mail and BBC, almost never includes any trans voices.

Of course, the media also ignores the fact that protests outside transphobic rallies also constitute free speech, usually of the most voiceless. Moreover, the systematic exclusion of trans voices from the media, combined with wall-to-wall anti-trans rhetoric, is many, many orders of magnitude greater than a half-empty church hall.

When you see anyone claiming trans people are silencing them, it’s part of a mirror propaganda operation

Transphobic rallies often struggle to get attendance into double figures, but mainstream media reaches millions. Our exclusion from the media contrasts with a huge number of anti-trans articles every month – often five or six in the same newspaper on the same day.

In fact, no means exists by which trans people can silence anyone; there are no trans media editors, media CEOs or university vice-chancellors, and precious few trans politicians. There have never been any trans commissioners in the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. Yet the media pretends trans people are able to silence anti-trans activists at any time.

This means that for anti-trans activists it has become almost a duty to be faux-silenced. In their hired venues, joint rallies with the far right, online astroturf actions, even in unsuspecting academic publications, they theatrically perform silencing whenever they can to provide material for mirror propaganda.

When you see anyone claiming trans people are silencing them, it’s part of a mirror propaganda operation.

For mirror propaganda to work, you need complete control over mainstream media. It is a hardcore, military-grade propaganda technique now being deployed by some of the most powerful people in the country against one of the smallest minorities. In a situation where mainstream media is entirely one-sided, its writers can no longer be considered ‘journalists’, but propagandists. Those who platform them while excluding those they target are not ‘editors’, they are censors.

Extremist groups

The invention of mirror propaganda has been attributed to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, and so far the earliest identified deployments of it are by Goebbels and Himmler in 1940s Germany, targeting Jewish people.

More recently, Alison Des Forges and Jean-Pierre Cretien identified mirror propaganda as a significant factor in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when hundreds of thousands of Tutsi men, women and children were killed.

Susan Benesch, director of the Dangerous Speech Project at Harvard University, has also identified mirror propaganda as one of the main techniques for inciting genocide.

However, mirror propaganda is also deployed in other ways against trans people – such as when anti-trans activists claim (without evidence) that trans people are a ‘danger’ to cis women. On the contrary, the real danger to cis women comes from the politics of the far right, particularly homophobic and anti-abortion fundamentalists that ‘gender-critical’ transphobes sometimes collaborate with, and are funded by, to the tune of millions of dollars.

In addition to safe and legal abortion, these extremist groups oppose contraception, equal marriage, equal adoption, IVF and ‘Gillick competence’ – the legal principle that young people have the ability to give consent to their own medical treatment.

Through the wedge issue of transphobia, self-identified gender-critical ‘feminists’ have opened the door for the far-right’s homophobia and misogyny. After investing all this money, are they really going to stop at just harming trans people?

So who is deploying mirror propaganda? Global Action for Trans Equality recently produced an analysis of organised transphobia in Britain. What’s most striking is how the connections between well-funded right-wing evangelical organisations, ‘gender-critical’ groups and mainstream media are so numerous that they appear almost indistinguishable from each other. Yet their modus operandi is where these groups most obviously align.

Mirror propaganda is an extreme right-wing political strategy now being deployed by ‘nice’ middle-class transphobes and ‘respectable’ establishment journalists normalising the exclusion of trans people’s voices. Transphobes, from their media bully-pulpits, with contrived self-righteous fervour, routinely claim we are silencing them while they are actually silencing us.

This tells you all you need to know about the complete absence of integrity and sincerity in those who oppose trans and non-binary people’s human rights.

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