Tech Companies Have the Ability to Combat Dangerous Conversion “Therapy” Disinformation and Save LivesWendy Via, Heidi Beirich / Jan 23, 2024
Wendy Via and Heidi Beirich are the cofounders of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.
Conversion “therapy,” a dangerous practice aimed at altering an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity, has been widely discredited and condemned by medical and psychological organizations globally. A UN special rapporteur even described it as “amounting to torture.” This dangerous practice can lead to clinical depression and an increase in suicide attempts, among many other possible harms. The clear danger this practice represents has led to the passage of bans of various kinds against conversion therapy in 26 countries and many sub-national jurisdictions, including 22 US states.
The Global Project Against Hate and Extremism (GPAHE) has conducted extensive research on how conversion therapy disinformation presents online in multiple countries and multiple languages. The first set of reports, published in 2022, revealed that all major tech and social media companies were allowing information related to conversion therapy and associated search terms to run rampant on their platforms. We also discovered anti-LGBTQ+ groups were freely using the internet to push their harmful theories and “therapies,” and other health-related disinformation, encouraging people and their families to join them, so that they could overcome their “unwanted same-sex attraction.”
Tech companies have made some positive strides, impressive even in some cases, in deplatforming conversion therapy disinformation online. Yet our new research Conversion Therapy Online: The Ecosystem in 2023, released today, details how the tech companies are failing those who are searching for authoritative information on conversion therapy. There is persistence of conversion therapy material online, especially in non-English languages.
The latest GPAHE report focuses on Brazil, Mexico, West African countries, South Africa, and the US, and finds a significant disparity globally in content moderation, very similar to that discovered in 2022. One key finding is that while tech companies have, for the most part, adequately incorporated the term “conversion therapy” into their algorithms and content moderation practices (though mostly only in English or major languages), they have all failed to address the most common phrase used by conversion therapy providers globally to avoid the negative connotations now associated with it and any content moderation: “unwanted same-sex attraction.” This phrase is used especially by those operating under the auspices of religion to push their anti-LGBTQ+ agenda, and the non-English results are terrible.
This is a stark reminder of the work still needed to protect LGBTQ+ people globally, especially as the politically powerful around the world increasingly dehumanize the LGBTQ+ community and implement legislative policies to roll back rights.
The Role of Tech Companies
In the case of conversion therapy disinformation, tech companies, as guardians of the digital information space, have a crucial role to play.
If tech companies are serious about effectively addressing this issue, they must intensify efforts to combat this disinformation, respecting the diversity of their global user base and addressing the unique challenges in different languages and regions. This approach would acknowledge the significant disparities in information quality and access globally and work to ensure life-saving information is available in someone’s native language.
In addition to expanding their content moderation capabilities across multiple languages, the companies must update their algorithms to recognize and filter euphemisms and rebranded terms commonly used by conversion therapy advocates to escape moderation, like “unwanted same-sex attraction.”
It is also essential that they identify and uprank authoritative medical information on conversion therapy in every language, and highlight organizations that are supportive to those struggling with being unhoused, suicidal, or other illness.
It’s also crucial for these platforms to collaborate with local civil society groups, such as LGBTQ+ and mental health-focused organizations. These partnerships can ensure tech companies are well-informed about the evolving tactics used by conversion therapy proponents. Similarly, launching educational campaigns is also vital. These campaigns should focus on informing users about the dangers of conversion therapy and the importance of embracing diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.
Finally, tech companies must implement inclusive global strategies. Considering the transnational nature of digital platforms, and the transnational nature of anti-LGBTQ+ networks, these strategies should be sensitive to cultural and linguistic differences, ensuring a comprehensive approach to countering disinformation and protecting the LGBTQ+ community worldwide.
The fight against conversion therapy disinformation is about protecting LGBTQ+ individuals; and it's about providing authoritative materials on a health issue and protecting human rights. As tech companies continue to shape the global narrative, their role in safeguarding these values and protecting vulnerable communities from harmful disinformation is more critical than ever before. Our report offers a pathway forward, and we urge companies like YouTube, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Bing to act with urgency and responsibility. The well-being of countless people, and the integrity of our offline and online society, depends on it.
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A full list of our recommendations can be found in Conversion Therapy Online: The Ecosystem in 2023 and additional information from our 2022 reports in Conversion Therapy Online: The Ecosystem and Conversion Therapy Online: The Players.