Smartphone users that have installed TikTok or Twitter, YouTube and Facebook apps could be at risk of losing their safety. This depends on the way 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. All five apps fell below 50 points from 100 when assessing a dozen indicators for safety and best practices to support lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender, or other queer users. Each one was ranked below.500 in a newly created LGBTQ+ scorecard for 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.
GLAAD keeps 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 collaborated with Goodwin Simon Strategic Research and its experts and advisers to improve and refinance these 12 indicators.
GLAAD has recruited some notable names to its advisory panel. These include Maria Ressa (Nobel Prize Laureate) and journalist, Evan Greer (Podcast host, New York Magazine Editor-at-large), Evan Greer (nonbinary performer ALOK), Evan Greer (activist and journalist), Evan Greer (journalist), Evan Greer (podcast host), and Kara Swisher (New York Magazine editor-at-large). There are also a few other activists, academics 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 of these is worst?
All five apps failed to get even 50 of 100 points. There was no winner.
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.
TikTok came in last due to its zero score of having an under-represented workforce, its relationship with third parties advertisers, and the failure of TikTok users to be informed about how to stop data being collected on their sexual orientation.
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 was second worst, ranking fourth out of 5 apps with an overall score of 44.7 points out of 100. The bird app received a zero five times, including because it failed to give users a guide for adding pronouns on their profile, which Elon Musk mocked many times before 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.
Instagram came in second place with 48.38 points out of 100.
Olson said that they can and should be better.
“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.”
Is there a danger?
Ellis states that the report reveals that there has been an extraordinary rise in hatred, violence, and misinformation directed against this community since 2022.
“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.
What is this to do with the other 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 didn’t hesitate to accuse social media titans 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
It outlines the message GLAAD sends to each platform, along with other platforms not surveyed like Snapchat, Spotify and Amazon. Here are the organization’s five recommendations for improving social media safety for the LGBTQ+ community, as explained in its report:
- Design algorithms to increase hate, extremism, or harmful content.
- Training moderators is essential to be able to recognize the needs of LGBTQ users and moderate in all languages, cultures, and locations.
- You must be transparent about content moderation, community guidelines, terms of service implementation and algorithm design.
- To strengthen and enforce community guidelines that are protective of LGBTQ persons and other people.
- Protect data privacy especially for LGBTQ persons who are at risk of serious violence and harm. Companies use sophisticated algorithms to provide content recommendations to their users, hoping to maximise profit.
What’s the takeaway? Olson said 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.”
You can find out more information about the scorescard and recommendations: You can read the entire report here.