Opinion

How Fake News Targets Transgender People

When news broke last week that a transgender woman was arrested for molesting a young girl in a bathroom, conservative sites lept on the incident as a justification for all their transphobic fears. “Transgender Wyoming Woman Convicted of Sexually Assaulting 10-Year-Old Girl In Bathroom” screamed the Fox News headline, along with similar posts on The Daily CallerThe BlazePrison PlanetWorld Net Daily, and Breitbart.

Each of these articles avoids the facts — that the perpetrator was a friend of the young girl’s family and the incident took place in the bathroom of a private home. These are important for two reasons. The first fact means the incident more closely resembles the vast majority of instances of sexual assault (which are committed by someone the victim knows personally in 93% of such incidents) more so than the oft-used specter of a stranger approaching women in a public restroom.

The second detail — that the incident took place inside a private residence — means this incident has nothing to do with so-called “bathroom bills” which only effect public restrooms. It’s a terrible piece of news, as abjectly terrifying as any report of sexual abuse against a minor. But the idea that it has anything to do with transgender people at large isn’t just false — it’s purposefully-misleading fake news.

Conservative misuse of this incident is far from alone. In 2016, a website known for running fake news stories for clicks posted a story about a transgender woman taking photos of an underrage girl in a public bathroom, which quickly found its way onto conservative Facebook pages and a site called Freedom Daily despite no such incident ever taking place. That same year, conservative sites picked up a story about a man choking a woman in a public restroom — an incident having nothing to do with transgender people at all — and tied them to Obama-era policies enforcing trans equality in public schools.

As transgender people achieve more visibility in public life, we must engage these lies and affirm our own humanity to people skeptical of our existence or our intentions. According to a YouGov survey released earlier this year, only 15% of Americans say they are friends with someone who is transgender. This means many people’s conceptions of us will come from TV, movies, and news coverage — which unfortunately includes misleading stories like these.

The Wyoming incident, like those before it, quickly began trending on Facebook and raced to the top of conservative forums and news sites, largely mirroring the path of urban legends and propaganda distinctly designed to inflame the most volatile elements of the culture wars.

Throughout last year’s presidential campaign and up to the present, articles and advertisements meant to prey on conservatives fears of immigrants and people of color flooded social media in a dual effort by Russian manipulators and conservative rabble-rousers to influence people’s perceptions.

Russian infiltrators purchased ads featuring Black Lives Matter protesters and targeted them at conservatives most likely to view the ad negatively. The Internet Research Agency — a secretive organization within Russia known for running misleading online campaigns in the US — purchased ads for fake gun rights organizations and pro-LGBT rights activists. Most notably, a report found Russian hackers even organized anti-immigrant rallies that were actually attended by American citizens.

One of the most egregious examples — and one that mirrors the use of the Wyoming incident — came from a 2016 incident in Twin Falls, Idaho, in which two young boys were caught sexually assaulting a younger girl. Conservative media picked up the story to give weight to the proposed ban against Syrian refugees by then-candidate Donald Trump and, as an eye-opening New York Times report says, were quickly joined by Russian-sent bots pushing the same narrative.

As in the manipulation of the Wyoming incident, key facts were left out, including the fact that the perpetrators were minors themselves and that they were Sudanese and Iraqi refugees, not Syrians. Facts were also added to the story — including a made-up anecdote of one of the boys running home and getting a high-five from his father for raping the girl.

This misleading conduct suggests far-right conservatives are not above manipulating the details of very real, very serious sexual assault cases to fit the preordained narratives of their dogmatic writers and readers. Such mistruths in turn empower conservative lawmakers and pundits who have long invoked the threat of sexual assault to justify so-called “bathroom bills” despite having no evidence connecting the two.

Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick justified his support for the now-failed attempt to enforce gendered bathrooms in public buildings and schools by claiming Texans “don’t want sexual predators who would use that as a loophole to follow any of the women in this room into a bathroom. The people of Texas don’t want that.” When North Carolina state senator Lee Bright introduced that state’s famed discrimination law, he outright said “From a safety issue, we don’t need men going in women’s bathrooms.”

Aside from being horrifically discriminatory attempts to put the comfort of cis people over the safety of trans people, these bills and the dozens of copycats that have sprung up in state legislatures lack any real function. Not only does it misrepresent the threat of sexual assault, but it also ignores the fact transgender people are far more likely to be the victim of assault, not the perpetrators. Like most moral panics, they represent an irrational fear born of stigma and prejudice rather than a solution crafted to solve an actual problem.

Especially when you consider conservative policies that threaten to increase sexual assault — such as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s recent decision to reverse Obama-era policies designed to help colleges and universities fight campus rape — the far-right should be ashamed for using sexual assault as a cudgel against their perceived enemies while ignoring how their own policies worsen the problem.

As transgender people achieve more visibility in public life, we threaten the narratives that hope to portray us as dangerous charlatans or sexual predators. The more people know us as educators, policymakers, artists, employees, parents, and members of the armed forces, the more craven the far right will become in their quest to mislead and stoke bigotry against us.

Gillian Branstetter

Writer living in Central PA – Original Article

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