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Google, Facebook and Amazon turn blind eye to anti-gay disinformation

Revealed: Tech companies are doing little to stop propaganda about ‘conversion therapy’, especially in non-English languages

Khatondi Soita Wepukhulu
18 January 2022, 4.56pm
Protesters in London calling for a ban on ‘conversion therapy’, June 2021
Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Digital giants including Amazon, Google, Meta (formerly Facebook), Microsoft, PayPal, Twitter, YouTube and Wikipedia have failed to clamp down on anti-LGBTQ disinformation about so-called ‘conversion therapy’, a global monitoring group has found.

Two new reports by the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism (GPAHE) found that search results in languages other than English were much more likely to include disinformation and hate speech. One Wikipedia entry in Swahili compares homosexuality to child rape.

GPAHE, which is based in the US, also said that social media bans for those promoting ‘conversion therapy’ are “toothless”.

All but one of the companies listed above ignored openDemocracy’s requests for comment on these findings. Three (Meta, Twitter, YouTube) faced questions today from MPs in the UK about online safety and abuse.

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‘Conversion therapy’ (also called ‘reparative therapy’ or ‘gay cure therapy’) refers to any therapeutic approach or view that assumes that one sexual orientation or gender identity is innately preferable to another, and attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity on that basis. In practice, this means changing people’s orientation or identity to cis gender heterosexuality.

There is no scientific evidence that ‘conversion therapy’ is successful, and significant research and first-hand testimonies have underscored its severe, long-term and sometimes deadly psychological consequences.

Different languages, different universes

GPAHE’s research was conducted in English and Spanish in the US, English in Ireland and Australia, German in Germany, Spanish in Colombia, and English and Swahili in Kenya.

“Tech companies put most of their resources for protecting users from harm into English, leaving speakers of other languages to experience a much less authoritative and more dangerous online experience,” said Heidi Beirich and Wendy Via, the reports’ authors and co-founders of GPAHE.

Tech companies put most of their resources for protecting users from harm into English

In Kenya, the search term ‘gay cure therapy’ in Swahili brought up a Wikipedia page that compares homosexuality to gluttony and child rape, urging: “Think before you act.”

In Colombia, a Spanish YouTube search for ‘unwanted same-sex attraction’ led to content from US-based anti-LGBTIQ groups including Family Watch International (FWI), a known proponent of ‘conversion therapy’. FWI has repeatedly attacked the LGBTIQ community, claiming that members are “significantly more likely to engage in pedophilia” and abuse drugs.

English and Swahili are both official languages in Kenya, with the latter spoken by more than 70 million people in East and Central African countries. English-language search results for Kenyan users were markedly different – better regulated and more authoritative – compared with results in Swahili, the researchers said.

“When it comes to conversion therapy online, it’s as though the two languages are from two different universes,” said Via.

GPAHE’s findings about Spanish-language information in Colombia present a worrying trend of US anti-LGBTIQ groups spreading hate and disinformation beyond their home country. Putting the term ‘ex gay therapy’ into Microsoft search engine Bing led users to the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity, a US group that promotes ‘natural law’ and supports ‘therapy’ for homosexuality.

Of the non-English languages investigated by GPAHE, only German produced “surprisingly good” search results. The researchers believe this is a result of Germany’s recent ban on ‘conversion therapy’ for minors and its law against online hate speech.

An openDemocracy investigation last year revealed that therapists backed by US Christian conservative groups were attempting to ‘cure’ LGBTQ people in the US, Costa Rica and Guatemala – despite local bans and professional regulations against doing so. Our undercover reporters found these therapists on the groups’ online platforms.

Wikipedia: reviewing its policies

The Wikimedia Foundation, which hosts the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, was the only company to respond to openDemocracy’s enquiries about GPAHE’s reports. Wikipedia, which is volunteer-driven, relies on communities in different regions to set and enforce their own policies.

Swahili Wikipedia, which has 38 editors, has not set any policies about hate speech or ‘conversion therapy’, the Wikimedia Foundation admitted.

English Wikipedia, however, has a ‘neutral point of view policy’ and “has been working on a hate speech-related policy,” said the foundation – though it did not say when the draft proposal might be implemented.

The Wikimedia Foundation is reportedly working on enforcement guidelines for a universal code of conduct, introduced last year, which prohibits harassment based on personal characteristics such as gender identity and sexual orientation. The foundation will also be “reviewing the [GPAHE] report with an aim of assisting the Swahili Wikipedia Community to address the gaps”.

“We hope these reports help tech companies clean up their platforms when it comes to anti-LGBTQ+ conversion therapy material,” said Beirich from GPAHE. “Getting rid of this harmful material online is an important step toward creating a society where LGBTQ+ people are accepted and loved, and nobody feels like they want or need to change who they are. That’s the overall goal.”

As a result of GPAHE’s research, YouTube terminated an account belonging to the Reintegrative Therapy Association (RTA) – one of the alleged ‘conversion therapy’ providers mapped in the reports. RTA says it does not sanction ‘conversion therapy’, but claims that people’s sexual attraction may be changed as a result of its trauma therapy.

GPAHE’s first report, ‘Conversion Therapy Online: The Ecosystem’, looks at disinformation online, especially in languages other than English. The second report, ‘Conversion Therapy Online: The Players’, profiles 25 providers of ‘conversion therapy’ around the world.

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