Social media plays a vital role in the lives of LGBTQ+ individuals. It helps them engage with other members and seek support while organising various advocacies necessary for their rights and visibility. However, studies have shown LGBTQ+ youth to be three times more likely to be cyberbullied than their peers with various case studies outlining how platforms often silence LGBTQ+ voices by deeming them as “inappropriate content.” These experiences are also said to initiate depression, drug misuse, unsafe sexual behaviour and poor academic performances among members of the community.
In a bid to analyse top social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube, leading LGBTQ+ rights organisation GLAAD has come up with a Social Media Safety Index. Here’s how it analyses and ranks platforms and the urgent changes it could potentially lead to.
GLAAD’s Social Media Safety Index (SMSI) is a report that analyses social media platforms based on how safe they are for LGBTQ+ users. Dubbed the “first-ever baseline evaluation of the LGBTQ user safety experience across the social media landscape,” the index seeks to provide recommendations for policy and product updates to tech giants.
“Social media is a lifeline for LGBTQ people, but too often we face real harm that goes unchecked by the platforms,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, GLAAD’s President and CEO. In a blog post, Ellis highlighted how policies and product updates surrounding the LGBTQ+ community have been on the low-priority list despite tech giants waking up to the issues faced by marginalised communities on their platforms.
“Drawing on GLAAD’s proven track record of leveraging similar reports and programs to advance LGBTQ inclusion in Hollywood, our Social Media Safety Index will hold social media platforms accountable and provide a roadmap for creating safer and more inclusive online spaces,” Ellis added.
Is it possible to measure the types of abuse inflicted on LGBTQ+ users on various platforms though? In an interview with Axios, Ellis noted the presence of policy differences between social media platforms. “For example, Twitter has added a policy against intentionally misgendering someone, while such behavior clearly isn’t against the rules of Facebook and YouTube.”
GLAAD thereby crafted the index by pulling together an advisory committee—coupled with the review of various reports, journalism and findings across the field of social media safety. The reports begin with a selection of broad recommendations that tackle various realms including LGBTQ+ self-expression, privacy, outing, hiring, inclusion and leadership, among others. These general recommendations are then followed by a list of platform-specific recommendations, emphasising what companies can and must do to address the problems.
On 9 May 2021, GLAAD analysed top social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube to publish key findings and recommendations as part of the inaugural Social Media Safety Index. Although GLAAD had planned on rating each of these platforms, it scrapped the idea after determining that all of them would receive a “failing grade.”
“They are categorically unsafe across the board,” Ellis said in an interview with Axios, outlining how all five platforms classify themselves as LGBTQ-friendly while allowing LGBTQ+ users to be harassed on a daily basis. These sites were further found to spread harmful misinformation among users. “What shocked me the most about all of this is that at the end of the day, these companies have the tools to stop it immediately,” Ellis added.
Following months of analysis of the platforms, their policies and track record of enforcing them, GLAAD listed out recommendations specific to each service. After analysing Facebook’s community guidelines, algorithmic and AI biases, GLAAD suggested various guidelines including third-party fact-checking, employment of qualified human moderators and continuing their efforts at diversifying their workforce.
As for YouTube, the organisation suggested labelling content, pointing users to trusted sources and stopping the block of words like ‘gay’ and ‘transgender’. Over at Twitter and Instagram, recommendations mainly included improving the process of reporting, refining the algorithm to reduce (rather than spread) hate and updating their community guidelines to better suit the context. For TikTok, GLAAD suggested avoiding shadowbanning legitimate users and over-policing LGBTQ hashtags.
The report also gave a list of “thumbs up” for various policies the organisation believes are positive steps in the direction. This list includes Twitter’s rules against dehumanising, YouTube’s attempt at LGBTQ education and allyship as well as Facebook and Instagram’s pride stickers, GIFs and hashtags—thereby encouraging other platforms to adapt the same.
All five platforms in question have responded to GLAAD’s report. “We believe deeply in the representation of and visibility for the LGBTQ+ community that GLAAD champions,” Alex Schultz, CMO of Facebook and Instagram, said in a statement to Axios. “Finding the right balance between giving voice and taking action on harmful content is hard. This is why we partner with experts, nonprofits and other stakeholders like GLAAD to try and get it right.”
YouTube highlighted how the platform has made significant progress in its ability to quickly remove hateful and harassing content from search results and recommendations against the LGBTQ+ community. Twitter and TikTok further welcomed GLAAD’s initiative to better understand the experiences and needs of the LGBTQ+ communities on their services.
With that being said, Ellis believes that social media can still be an important gathering place for LGBTQ+ individuals. “There are bright spots,” she said. “There are so many kids who share their transition and coming out stories. And I think it’s really important to inspire other kids or other people to be their true and authentic self.”
Although the negatives outweigh the positives at the moment, GLAAD hopes to work with all five platforms over the next year to reach a stage that is inclusive and empowering to the LGBTQ+ community. And with Tumblr staking its claims as “the queerest place on the internet”—by embracing the fact that one out of four users is LGBTQIA+—that stage might just be closer than it appears.