Screenshot of Anchored North video. Credit: Anchored North.
A US evangelical Christian group has used Facebook and YouTube to target LGBT young people with ‘dehumanising’ video ads.
The social media giants’ sophisticated advertising capabilities have allowed the tax-exempt charity Anchored North, based in California, to “pay to reach secular world views”, said founder Greg Sukert in a recent webinar.
The group says it uses “media and evangelism to reach the lost”. One lesbian woman who saw its ads told 50.50 they were “heartbreaking” and that she’s had friends who “died by suicide as a result of videos like this”.
After 50.50 contacted Facebook and YouTube, they reviewed some of Anchored North’s ads and said they contravened their rules against ad content that disparages or discriminates against users.
Currently the group, which has also targeted anti-abortion video ads at young women, is not running Facebook ads anywhere in the world. YouTube said it has removed Anchored North ads that violate its policies.
However, millions of people have already seen these ads, and there will likely be more targeted campaigns that slip through the platforms’ policies in the future as groups find new ways of getting around the rules.
“To specifically target queer and trans individuals and women seeking abortions is the lowest blow imaginable,” said Rashima Kwatra from the rights group OutRight Action International.
“It’s truly appalling for an organisation to purposefully send dehumanising messages to individuals who are already targets of so much abuse,” she said, calling it “intolerable” that this group has a platform on social media.
“It’s truly appalling for an organisation to purposefully send dehumanising messages to individuals who are already targets of so much abuse.”
Founded by three conservative Christian executives in digital media and marketing, Anchored North produces slick, millennial-friendly videos featuring personal testimonies of redemption from ‘sinful’ lives.
This content is then placed “relentlessly” in front of "people who are not in accordance with the word of God", Sukert said in an interview with 50.50.
“Like when you go to Amazon and you see a spatula and then that spatula starts following you across Facebook ads, across Google display ads, and everywhere you go, you’re seeing that spatula,” said Sukert.
“That’s what we’re doing – we really relentlessly follow people with the Gospel, with stories of hope and redemption,” he said
Sukert said the group has focused heavily on paid-for online advertising, heralding the “amazing” targeting options on social media.
“It really allows us to be missionaries – not just in the United States but all over the world – so that’s what we do, we hone into people’s interests.”
It's unclear how much money Anchored North has spent on Facebook and YouTube ads, but in targeted social media advertising, a little can do a lot.
Another of its videos, I Forgave My Rapist, is about a woman’s decision to have her attacker’s baby instead of an abortion.
“Raw, genuine and transparent stories,” said Sukert, are particularly attractive to younger viewers. They are also less likely to be taken down for violating social media companies’ policies, he added.
Screenshot of Anchored North video. Credit: Anchored North.
Anchored North says its target audience is 18-to-35-year-olds “being torn apart by darkness, by sin, by evil” and “leaving the church at an alarming rate”.
Its ambition is to “redeem a platform that is being used for evil” and harness “His [God’s] technology” as “an evangelical tool,” said Sukert in a webinar on Facebook evangelism strategies that 50.50 observed.
“Look for people that are posting that they’re hurting,” he said, adding that transgender people and drug users were among Anchored North’s next high-priority audiences for targeted ads.
Since then, a teaser for a new video testimony of a former drug user has appeared on the group’s Facebook page.
Leslie Cox, a lesbian woman in the US who is pursuing ordination as a priest within the Presbyterian Church, is one of the millions of Facebook users who have seen Anchored North’s targeted video ad Love is Love.
She warned that such videos can contribute to mental health problems among those who view them. “I’ve had friends who have attempted and died by suicide as a result of videos like this,” she told 50.50.
Cox said it was “heartbreaking” to watch Love is Love, in which it seemed that “the only narrative that [the woman speaking] had been told about Christianity and homosexuality was one of condemnation.”
She says that she and her partner were also “infuriated by Anchored North’s entire campaign” of using “clickbait posts that seem affirming” but actually mislead viewers about what they are about to see and hear.
This affirming tone is something that Sukert seemed particularly proud of. Social media users, he explained, will often watch just the first 30 seconds of a video and share it before they realise what its messages are.
“I’ll tell you a really fun story,” he told 50.50, about how LGBT people shared the Love is Love film like this.
“Seeing this video autoplay in their feed, with the language ‘love is love’, celebrating love and acceptance, [they were] sharing it before they saw the end,” Sukert said, “actually serving as our advocates to get the gospel out.”
“Subterfuge! :-D” a webinar attendee exclaimed in the comment thread, after Sukert told this story to the group as well.
Another Facebook user, who requested anonymity, told 50.50 that they were “hurt and angry” after seeing a targeted Anchored North ad on their timeline.
These videos “have been put out there to push a false narrative and to harm LGBTQ+ people”, they said. “I know that I can't change who I am, and so for this video to say I can really made me feel hurt and manipulated.”
“I’ve had friends who have attempted and died by suicide as a result of videos like this.”
Facebook’s advertising policy says: “Adverts must not engage in predatory advertising practices or contain content that discriminates against, harasses, provokes or disparages people.”
It also prohibits “disrespectful” and “misleading content” and ads that violate recently-updated “Community Standards”, including on hate speech, and no longer approves ads targeted to users based on their self-declared sexual identity.
Sukert said that targeting options for advertisers on Facebook have been dramatically limited in recent months amid a general tightening of policies around user privacy and how individuals’ data can be used.
Anchored North used to, but can no longer, target people who ‘like’ gay pride parades or Planned Parenthood, or follow what Sukert calls “pages that really celebrate same-sex attraction like LGBT Nation”.
But there are ways to get around these rules, 50.50 learned.
Screenshot from Anchored North webinar. Credit: Anchored North.
“Facebook is really trying to combat polarising content right now, but it really does cherish stories,” said Sukert, adding that “Zuckerberg admits that hate speech is difficult to define” and the platform “didn’t think it through”.
Sukert told 50.50 about a feature called Lookalike Audiences, which enables Anchored North and other advertisers to continue targeting ads with similar specificity as they could before Facebook’s privacy changes came in.
Lookalike Audiences compiles all the users an advertiser has previously targeted and interacted with, said Sukert.
“They match all the commonalities of those profiles and they create a new audience for you,” he explained, doing “all the hard work for you”.
Sukert also told his webinar attendees that he “was just on the phone to a Facebook ad rep” who was giving him tips to maximise posts’ reach.
On YouTube, Sukert said that Anchored North has targeted people who are searching for certain keywords, paying the platform to place their videos as ‘pre-roll’ content on channels that have opted-in for advertisements.
This capability “presents amazing opportunities”, said Sukert.
Earlier this year, celebrity YouTuber Hank Green warned that anti-LGBT groups in the US are “taking their hateful advertisements and putting them up on pro, supportive, prideful, loving content on YouTube… to reach people who are vulnerable and who are looking for support in a time of need”.
Individual YouTube channels can block specific advertisers by their URLs and content categories. But this isn't difficult to get around, according to Green who says that advertisers can use different URLs or recategorise their content.
Ultimately, Green concludes, such bans are “mostly not going to work.”
“Facebook is really trying to combat polarising content right now, but it really does cherish stories.”
After 50.50 contacted the social media platform, YouTube said that when it finds an ad that violates its content policy, it removes it – and that it’s disapproved Anchored North ads accordingly.
“We have a clear set of policies which prohibit ads and videos that disparage an individual or group on the basis of their sexual orientation,” said a spokesperson. “We enforce this policy rigorously and when a violation is brought to our attention, we take swift action.”
YouTube’s policies also prohibit advertisers from targeting individuals based on several “sensitive interest categories” including their sexual preferences.
The platform denied that advertisers can re-categorise their videos, saying that only their own systems can classify videos.
A Facebook spokesperson said, in relation to the Love is Love video: “While the videos are allowed to exist on the page, we have re-reviewed the ads that include this particular video and determined they violate by abusing the spirit of our ad targeting policies which don't allow people to discriminate against, harass, provoke, or disparage users or to engage in predatory advertising practices.”
They declined to comment on Anchored North’s ads and approach more broadly, restricting their comments to Love is Love.
Screenshot of Anchored North video on Facebook. Credit: Anchored North.
The advanced advertising capabilities offered up by social media have made it easier than ever before to target members of specific communities online – including ahead of elections and referenda.
“It’s crucial that [social] networks have adequate privacy controls to ensure that user data is never compromised or unintentionally revealed,” said Carlos Gutierrez, at LGBT Tech, a coalition group based in Virginia.
This is particularly important as “the internet has been a lifeline for LGBT people,” he said, enabling people to come together and support each other online despite “long-standing sexual orientation stigmas and isolation.”
Ruth Tsuria, a digital culture researcher at the University of Seton Hall, New Jersey, said Anchored North is a case of “a very vicious and cynical use” of consumer ‘big data’ that is also “dangerous to people’s mental health.”
“Facebook was very active taking down photos of people breastfeeding,” and “more successful in that than taking down hate speech,” she added, laying responsibility squarely at the social media giant’s feet.
It has the “power to decide what happens within its territory”, she said. When it doesn’t “act against these things, [it’s] to some degree allowing them.”
* This article was amended on 7 August to more precisely describe YouTube’s policies.