Social media: Voice of the LGBT community - Polity, 20 July 2017

A furore broke out in March, when several LGBT Youtube vloggers and artists complained that their content is being censored by the video-sharing website’s restricted mode.


By Gerbrandt van Heerden 

A furore broke out in March, when several LGBT Youtube vloggers and artists complained that their content is being censored by the video-sharing website’s restricted mode.
Youtube’s restricted mode is a feature that parents and schools for example can activate to help prevent people who are under age to be exposed to potentially mature content. This “family friendly” feature came under fire however, when it became clear that it blocks access to a wide range of LGBT content including age-appropriate resources aimed at LGBT youth. Examples of clips that were restricted include music videos by Sara and Tegan (a pop singing duo who are both openly gay), and Youtuber Callum McSwiggan’s video on coming out as gay to his grandmother. In neither cases did the videos contain any explicit or adult material. A video on the impact of LGBT censorship laws in Utah by New-York based watchdog, Human Rights Watch (HRW), was also blocked under the setting. Youtube initially defended its policy by stating that restricted mode works to “filter out mature content”. But after intense backlash, Youtube admitted that the setting has unfairly censored content simply because it was LGBT themed and has committed to changing its restricted mode. Since then however, many LGBT Youtubers have seen their content demonetised. This inability to make money out of their videos have made them question the sustainability of their channels.

Ryan Thoreson, a fellow for HRW, writes that LGBT youth should be able to access age-appropriate information about their health, politics and sexuality without feeling that their identity is inappropriate. And in this regard, Youtube and other forms of social media play an important role. Social media has been used as a tool, not only for disseminating information but also to represent marginalised groups.
The “It Gets Better Project” is one such example of social media mobilising support to promote LGBT issues and rights. The 2010 Youtube campaign was created by columnist and author Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller in response to a number of students taking their own lives after being bullied and harassed at school. In an eight-minute Youtube video, Savage sought to inspire and provide hope to young gay people by describing his own struggles as a gay man and how he overcame harassment and intolerance.
Since then, the It Gets Better Project has become a worldwide movement, inspiring more than 50 000 user-created videos viewed more than 50 million times. In South Africa, “Johannesburg Conversations” and “Cape Town Conversations” were networking and social events held once a month from 2013 to 2017, with the aim to promote face-to-face discussions between like-minded gay and lesbian professionals. The events also acted as social enterprises, raising awareness of- and money for NGOs and other charitable causes. Both these events primarily used Facebook as their way to advertise themselves, spread their message and gain members.

Social media is also useful to spread awareness of LGBT issues in countries which lack gay rights. China has legalised same-sex sexual activity in 1997. However, there are no anti-discrimination laws in employment or in the provision of goods and services in the country. The Mercator Institute for China Studies (Merics) is a blog that offers commentary and analysis on China’s political, economic and social development as well as its role in global affairs. Merics conducted an interview in February 2017 with Fan Popo, a leading figure in the China’s queer cinema scene and a LGBT activist based in Beijing.
Fan Popo explained that most mainstream media are quite stereotypical on gender issues while Gay and Lesbian films are banned from being shown in theatres. Queer topics are also not allowed to be the main theme in movies or television series. However, social media has provided an alternative avenue to publish his LGBT-related content. “There is also censorship, but you can always repost content if it is taken down. That is why I post my movies online…” Fan Popo goes on to say that social media is useful for families of gay people.
Parents in rural areas are using social media to reach out to communities outside of their own as well as to find more information about different sexual orientations and identities.

Social media also acts in a way to connect members of the LGBT community with one another which is especially necessary in difficult environments such as [growing up] in a socially conservative family or [living in] a country which is hostile to gays. According to the Pew Research Centre (an American “fact tank” based in Washington D.C), 69% of adult gay males have indicated that they have met new LGBT friends online or through a social media networking site. Another finding by Pew is that nearly half of gay men and lesbians chose to come out through the use of social media in 2015. Furthermore, LGB (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual) individuals were also avid social media users according to a statistical report released by England’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport. The report (released in April 2016) looked at social media users in England and their demographic characteristics. Results showed that 89.5% of LGB people used social media outlets compared to 70.1% of the general population. Broken down by type, 76.8% of LGB people used Facebook and 72.0% used Youtube. This was far above the national average for both Facebook (57.3%) and Youtube (50.3%).

There is no question that social media is an important component in advancing the rights and well-being of the LGBT community. Whether it is used as a tool to distribute information for educational purposes or raise awareness of the daily struggles of many LGBT people, it remains essential for the promotion of gay rights that social media outlets remain accessible. Thoreson concludes that as gatekeepers for this information, it is up to providers like Youtube to ensure the basis for restricting information is clear and transparent, and that their filters do not function in a way that discriminates.

*Gerbrandt van Heerden, research analyst at the South African Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.

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