OPINION Twitter takeover: Real-world risk to LGBTQ+ users

Tuesday, 8 November 2022 12:16 GMT

Elon Musk's photo is seen through a Twitter logo in this illustration taken October 28, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Concern spreads among the LGBTQ+ community, after new Twitter boss Elon Musk targets policy that penalizes misgendering or deadnaming trans people

Dawn Ennis was the first broadcast journalist to come out as transgender in network news

Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has sent a shockwave through social media and the LGBTQ+ community.

Bloomberg reports the world’s richest man has ordered a review of the platform’s hateful conduct policy, “specifically a section that says users can be penalized for ‘targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals.’”

There are few things more hurtful to a trans or non-binary person than being misgendered, and/or being referred to or called by the name they are given at birth, which many refer to as their “deadname.” 

Leo Baker, who quit Team U.S.A.’s first-ever Olympic skateboarding team so he could come out as his authentic self, described the feeling of being deadnamed and misgendered in a Netflix documentary.

"There's a wound inside of me that just keeps getting poked,” Baker said, barely holding back tears. 

Targeted misgendering and deadnaming is wielded every day by people utilizing social media to harass and demean trans and non-binary users. 

GLAAD recently evaluated TikTok, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram in its second annual Social Media Safety Index report, finding all failed to protect LGBTQ+ users.

“Trans and nonbinary people are who they say they are,” the report noted. “Quite simply, purposefully demeaning and misidentifying them is harassment and abuse.”

“Social media companies have made some progress on this,” added Ari Drennen, the LGBTQ program director for Media Matters for America.

“In 2018, Twitter adopted their policy banning targeted deadnaming and misgendering. Tik Tok this year adopted a policy banning targeted misgendering and deadnaming as well.” 

Alejandra Caraballo, clinical instructor at the cyberlaw clinic at Harvard Law School, described the impact of this insidious form of harassment. 

“I go through my entire life, pretty much day to day and I never, ever get misgendered,” Caraballo said. “When you see it on social media, it becomes a little bit more jarring, particularly in the way that it's used to harass people. People will use the masculine version of my name, even though that's not my deadname.” 

Caraballo noted the harassment doesn’t stop there. “They’re baselessly calling me a groomer and a pedophile,” she said. “It’s an attempt to bully us; it is abusive; it is harassment.”

Both Drennan and Caraballo happen to be transgender women. Caraballo is the first trans woman of color to teach at Harvard Law.

Calls are growing among tech and advocacy leaders to urge both YouTube and Meta – the parent company of Facebook and Instagram – to join Twitter and TikTok and add an explicit prohibition against targeted misgendering and deadnaming to their hate speech policies.

Policy enforcement remains spotty, experts say.

Drennan agrees platforms are inconsistent in addressing the problem.

“Twitter, for example, does not enforce a full ban on targeted misgendering and deadnaming if it’s done by somebody like an elected official, like when (Rep. Congress member) Marjorie Taylor Greene does it, as she did to Admiral Rachel Levine earlier this year,” she said. 

“It’s petty. It's juvenile. It's extremely harmful. And it's important for companies to be consistent about this, in order to create a safe environment for all of their users on these platforms,” Drennen said.

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