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Hospitals and doctors across the country are being harassed and even threatened with death for the medical care they provide to transgender children. In many cases, they have been the subject of posts on a Twitter account called Libs of TikTok, as well as articles in conservative media portraying gender-affirming care as child abuse and mutilation.
Which begs the question: where should social networks draw the line with accounts promoting stories that trigger harassment campaigns on their platforms and beyond?
Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC became the latest target this week when Libs of TikTok released an audio recording in which hospital staff appeared to say that gender-affirming hysterectomies had been performed on underage girls. . The hospital said that claim was incorrect and that none of the people on the record were providing patient care.
“The information in the recording is not accurate. We do not and have never performed gender-affirming hysterectomies for anyone under the age of 18,” Children’s National said in a statement to NPR. . “The speaking operator provided incorrect information.”
The statement continued: “Since the false information was spread on Twitter, we have been the target of a large number of hostile and threatening phone calls and emails.”
Children’s hospitals in Boston, Seattle, Chicago and Portland, Oregon were also targeted. Last week, Boston Children’s Hospital warned that he was receiving “a high volume of hostile internet activity, harassing phone calls and emails, including threats of violence towards our clinicians and staff” after false statements he performs genital surgeries on minors.
The US Department of Justice even intervened, with the US Attorney in Massachusetts calling the attacks “disturbing”.
False allegations, out of context videos
These false gender-affirming narratives about pediatric care are rooted in fundamental “misperceptions,” said Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd, pediatrician and director of the Gender Health Program at Children’s Minnesota.
“People have the mistaken impression that we do surgery on young children. People have the mistaken impression that we turn children from boys to girls at a very young age,” they said.
They said care for transgender children is wide-ranging, from efforts to help children make the social transition to puberty-blocking drugs to various gender-affirming surgeries, and is undertaken with input from pediatric psychologists, clinical social workers, hormone experts and endocrinologists, as well as families.
Some of the claims about Children’s National, Boston Children’s and other hospitals were pushed by the Libs of TikTok account, which regularly reposts videos and social media posts from LGBTQ people, teachers, schools and organizations. other institutions. The clips were sometimes taken out of context and framed to fuel outrage or ridicule for LGBTQ and anti-racist causes, in what the account owner described as “exposures” of the “crazy people.”
For example, a short clip about gender-affirming hysterectomies from a video originally posted by Boston Children’s that Libs of TikTok reposted makes no mention of the patients’ ages. But TikTok’s Libs tweeted alongside the clip the false claim that the hospital is offering the surgery “for young girls”.
Libs of TikTok, run by a Brooklyn woman named Chaya Raichik, has 1.3 million followers on its largest platform, Twitter. It has grown in prominence and influence in right-wing circles over the past year as conservatives increasingly attempt to use anti-LGBTQ sentiment to gain support.
NPR contacted Raichik for this story. She initially responded and agreed to an interview, but did not respond to a follow-up message. Raichik frequently condemns criticism of her online activities as efforts to “cancel her and silence her.” She said she had also received death threats.
Platforms fight harassment networks
Twitter and Facebook prohibit bullying and harassment, coordinated mass attacks and incitement to violence. Both companies prohibit the use of the word “groomer” as defamation against LGBTQ people under their rules against hate speech.
The platforms have eliminated some of the threats against hospitals. But how much accountability companies can or will place on accounts that draw attention to targets that end up being harassed is less clear.
Twitter previously temporarily suspended Libs of TikTok for violating its rules. The company declined to comment on the account. Following threats reported by Boston Children’s Hospital, Libs of TikTok said it had been permanently suspended by Facebook for violating the platform’s Community Standards. But that was quickly reversed and the account resumed posting on Facebook, claiming the social network said it was a mistake. Facebook declined to comment on the suspension.
Libs of TikTok seems to have escaped outright bans by getting closer to the platforms’ rules without breaking them. The account does not explicitly encourage followers to threaten anyone and typically uses its target’s own words, sometimes stripped of context, to imply wrongdoing.
But while his individual posts may stick to the letter of the platforms’ rules, their cumulative effect is what worries researchers like Joan Donovan, who studies online extremism, media manipulation and disinformation at the Shorenstein Center on Harvard Media, Politics and Public Policy.
“We have reached that phase in social media where people know what to do when an account like Libs of TikTok calls out another account or a person or an institution,” she said. Calls can trigger harassment campaigns known as “brigadage”, where commentators crowd onto a common target.
In the case of children’s hospitals, “threats have shifted from insults or targeted online accounts to more direct threats,” Donovan said. “The online threat escalates very quickly to offline violence when we start seeing these attack patterns.”
For social networks to address what Donovan calls “networked incitement,” she says, effectively tracking these threats means looking beyond single posts on specific platforms.
“Rush comments may not be that inflammatory, but if it creates a recognizable pattern of attack, which is the case with an account like Libs of TikTok, then these companies are well within their jurisdiction to warn and then ban the account.”
Right-wing groups target LGBTQ events, education and health care
Pediatricians and children’s hospitals are just the latest targets of right-wing outrage, in a new version of decades-old smear homosexuals, lesbians and transgender people as pedophiles or “groomers”.
“The Libs of TikTok account has been a major player in driving many of the harassment campaigns we’ve seen over the past year,” said Ari Drennen, LGBTQ program director at Media Matters for America, the social media group. liberal defence.
In some cases, events and figures published by Libs of TikTok have been targeted offline by far-right extremists known for his fights.
On a single day this summer, for example, men linked to the white nationalist group Patriot Front were arrested outside a pride event in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, and alleged members of the far-right Proud Boys crushed an hour of drag queen history at a library in San Lorenzo, California. Libs of TikTok had tweeted about both events, although there was no conclusive link between the posts and the activities of extremist groups.
As the Washington Post reported in April, the account’s topics and posts are regularly featured and promoted by other conservative influencers and media personalities, including podcaster Joe Rogan. Raichik appeared on Tucker Carlson’s primetime Fox News show.
The growing stigma of transgender medical care worries doctors.
“It’s a developmentally appropriate team approach that gives children time to discover their identity,” said Dr. Goepferd of Children’s Minnesota.
Threats to hospitals are spreading, affecting not only hospital staff, but also patients and families seeking all kinds of care, as well as the longer-term research needed in the field. “I fear that this type of false narrative will make research institutions or funders nervous about funding more research to find out what is the best possible care we could provide at this time,” Goepferd said. .
“The fact that somewhere the message has got through that it’s okay to attack doctors, pediatricians, children’s hospitals in this way is just a really disturbing societal trend,” they said.
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