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VOICES

Analysis Understanding harmful misinformation about an LGBTQ+ ‘agenda’ in Ireland

Ciarán O’Connor says misinformation about LGBTQ+ issues is rampant and must be actively countered.

SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS are a front line for the spread of mis- and disinformation targeting marginalised groups including the LGBTQ+ community.

Ireland, despite its progressive strides in LGBTQ+ rights over the past decade, is not immune. False and misleading narratives, fuelled by ignorance and hatred, are widely shared online and sow seeds of discord and discrimination.

Among the most pernicious and damaging conspiracy theories aimed at the community both online and offline is that there is a sinister, secret ‘agenda’ at play: this could be a ‘gay agenda,’ an  ‘LGBTQ+ agenda’, or a ‘trans agenda’. The theory alleges that there is a coordinated effort by the LGBTQ+ community or its allies, typically presented as powerful, influential and insidious activists, to promote ideologies and goals which are subversive, dangerous and detrimental to society. 
 
In the same vein, Liz Truss, the former UK prime minister, when speaking recently at the US conservative political conference, CPAC, referred to “trans activists” in the civil service. Truss suggested these supposed activists had an ideological agenda and had sabotaged her time in office. It turns out she proved pretty capable of doing that all by herself.

Whether it’s on TikTok, X, Instagram or elsewhere, claims about a group’s ‘agenda’ often reach millions of people and contribute towards suspicion, hostility or harm against the community, especially younger LGBTQ+ people. It is vital that online users, young and old, can recognise these harmful narratives and that social media companies are held accountable for their role in enabling the dissemination of discriminatory and hateful content.

Agenda

Those who claim there is a sinister ‘gay agenda’, visible through broader efforts to promote inclusion and acceptance of queer people, suggest there is a plot to undermine ‘traditional family values’. They see it as a plan to indoctrinate children through media and the education system.

These accusations range from questioning whether it is appropriate to include LGBTQ+ identities in the school curriculum to regurgitating one of the oldest arguments used to dehumanise LGBTQ+ people by attempting to link homosexuality and paedophilia, most recently reflected in the popularisation of the ‘groomer’ slur.

This world view sees LGBTQ+ rights as part of a larger erosion of moral standards. The greater visibility of LGBTQ+ identities in society, media and even politics is presented as a threat. Proponents claim that the ultimate aim of these movements is the manipulation of public opinion and the reshaping of society in accordance with a progressive liberal ethos.

The use of the phrase “gay agenda” can be traced back to the 1970s when it featured in US anti-homosexuality campaigns, developed under the guise of defending Christian morality and protecting children.

In the 1990s, the phrase was used to frame the campaign for equal rights and cultural acceptance of homosexuality in a negative light, describing it as a political ideology that would require a trade-off between the rights of LGBTQ+ people and others.

The term “agenda” here has been adapted over time to whatever subgroup of the LGBTQ+ community that is currently the subject of a new moral panic. As trans identities have grown more visible and prominent in society, so too have conspiratorial concerns about an alleged “trans agenda” and hatred against transgender people.

ILGA-Europe, a leading LGBTQ+ equality organisation in Europe researching hate speech across the continent, charted a rise in transphobic hate speech in multiple countries including Ireland in its annual 2022 report.

Conspiracy theories like these move from the online realm to the offline world with ease and fuel fear, discrimination and opposition to LGBTQ+ rights. At the same time, they provide fuel for groups attempting to have legislation repealed or measures that have been introduced to foster greater equality in society withdrawn. The spread and impact of such conspiracy theories in Ireland is only increasing.

Ireland

Throughout 2023, protesters entered libraries across the country demanding staff remove LGBTQ+ titles from the shelves, describing them as “filth” inappropriate for 12-17-year-olds. During a protest in Cork, one self-described ‘concerned parent’ said that LGBTQ+ books were being used to “sexualise children” and claimed they were part of a “paedophile agenda.”

In July, protesters gathered outside Leinster House to oppose what they referred to as “gender ideology” in schools; in reality this amounts to teaching children about gender identities including the existence of LGBTQ+ lifestyles and families. Speaking to the assembled protesters, Independent TD Mattie McGrath described this as an “evil Satanic” agenda.

Online, content that espouses similar views and warns of some form of an LGBTQ+ ‘agenda’ is highly popular, as documented in our analysis at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an NGO that researches online extremism, disinformation and hate. A November 2023 report released by ISD examining the online mis- and disinformation ecosystem in Ireland found that discussions concerning LGBTQ+ topics increased by more than 150% between 2022 and 2023.

Campaign

The proliferation of false and misleading narratives about the LGBTQ+ community on social media poses a significant roadblock to the community’s ability to thrive in Ireland. From harmful stereotypes to distorted and ignorant misinterpretations, these narratives fuel discrimination and undermine efforts for equality and acceptance.

In real world terms, this can lead to LGBTQ+ young people feeling unsafe in our communities, facing rejection from family, and experiencing isolation at school, with clear consequences for mental health and wellbeing

This week, LGBTQ+ youth organisation Belong To will launch the ‘It’s Our Social Media’ campaign, with the aim of increasing people’s awareness of online mis- and disinformation about the LGBTQ+ community. As part of the campaign, Belong To is encouraging online users to visit its website, where they have information on how to identify mis- and disinformation, what to do if you see this type of material and how to verify content, using three steps: “Pause. Question. Confirm.”

It’s important that social media companies, policy makers, news organisations and all of society challenge misinformation, promote understanding and stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community in Ireland and beyond.

Ciarán O’Connor is a researcher with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a NGO that researches online extremism, disinformation and hate. ISD is supporting Belong To’s ‘It’s Our Social Media’ campaign’ in March which aims to combat online hate speech experienced by LGBTQ+ youth.
 

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Author
Ciarán O’Connor