Rights in the time of conspiracies and fake news: disinformation against LGBTQ+ in the EU
An analysis of the EDMO fact-checking network. Organizations that contributed to this analysis: Pagella Politica/Facta news; Newtral; Lakmusz; Verifica RTVE; AFP; Correctiv; Demagog; DW; EFE Verifica; Ellinika Hoaxes; Knack; Maldita; TjekDet; VRTNWS.
Mis- and disinformation targeting the LGBTQ+ community is one of the most present and consistent in the European Union, as highlighted monthly by Edmo’s briefs. It seems that false news on this topic is becoming more and more insidious, with unfounded claims that often incite hatred against minorities, laws and institutions. Several disinformation narratives are common across the EU, but national cases with their own particularities are also present.
This collaborative investigation aims to analyze the main disinformation narratives conveyed by the many false news stories detected by the organizations forming the EDMO fact-checking network. This article is not meant to deal with any political issues or opinions; “disinformation narratives” are intended to be sets of demonstrably false news stories that are consistent in conveying particular messages.
There are various false stories circulating against the LGBTQ+ community across Europe. Many appear to stem from current issues (such as the passing of legislation in specific countries, as happened with the recent approval of the so-called “Trans Law” in Spain), others are based on conspiracy theories. Among the multitude of false stories, five main narratives can be identified as the most prevalent.
FALSE NARRATIVE #01: Gay and transgender people are sick, and transitioning leads to mental illnesses
A first disinformation narrative about gay and transgender people aims to portray them as suffering from physical and mental illness. These claims often appear as supported by scientific studies, papers and statistics that eventually turn out to be false or misinterpreted. For example, a fake study by a non-existent sexology institute claiming that homosexuality is linked to mental illness in a very high number of cases (94%) circulated in Poland, and an alleged course for paediatricians to identify and treat “LGBTQ+ babies” from the cradle was spread in Portugal. Actually, the American Psychiatric Association (APA), one of the world’s largest psychiatric organisations, removed homosexuality from its list of mental and behavioural disorders in 1973, and in 1990 the World Health Organization did the same.
Despite this, homosexuality is still sometimes presented – if not as a disease in itself – as a consequence of “disorders” and illnesses. In this rhetoric, current affairs are also exploited to convey stereotypes and biases: in 2022 for example the WHO detected an outbreak of monkeypox, and false stories claiming it was a disease only concerning gays began spreading in the EU. The strand was traced to Spain, Hungary, Latvia and several EU countries, as reported in the Edmo brief of June 2022. More recently, a story detected in Germany has targeted gender reassignment, misleadingly citing a scientific study to claim that transition is leading to an increase in suicides among transgender people. The attempt to portray them as suffering from mental illness and imbalance is consistent with other narratives tracked.
FALSE NARRATIVE #02: People that belong to the LGBTQ+ community are pedophiles
The second narrative seeks not only to correlate homosexuality, or more generally membership of the LGBTQ+ community, with incidents of sexual violence and paedophilia, but goes as far as to falsely claim that one of the prerogatives of belonging to this community is precisely to commit sexual violence, including against children and animals. In supporting this unfounded thesis, a number of fake news stories has circulated in the past about alleged posters promoting “ageless love”, even with minors, or about the supposed addition of the letter “P”, meaning “Pedosexual”, to the acronym LGBTQ+ in order to flaunt this inclination.
Within this narrative, the stories verified as false by independent fact-checking organizations vary greatly. There are examples in Spain, such as the false arrest of the founder of the Drag Queen Story Hour Association for “child pornography”, the unfounded story of a transgender person assaulted for exposing her genitals to a little girl in a toilet (also tracked in Belgium), or that of a mother allegedly marrying her own daughter. In Poland – which ranks last in the EU for respecting the rights of people belonging to the LGBTQ+ community – a fake graphic claimed that 46 per cent, or almost half, of all paedophilia cases could be attributed to LGBTQ+ people. In line with the broader strand of disinformation about the “dictatorship” of LGBTQ+ philosophy – that will be discussed later – there is, in Greece, the false story about the Spanish Minister for Equality supporting and promoting paedophilia.
FALSE NARRATIVE #03: People belonging to the LGBTQ+ community are violent and dangerous, and perpetrators of mass shootings
In 2022, after the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas (U.S.), false stories circulated that the shooter was a person who had changed sex, going so far as to accuse other people of the crime just for being transgender. In April 2023, after the mass shooting in Nashville (U.S.), whose perpetrator was actually a transgender person, a wave of disinformation emerged in many EU countries, among which France, Spain and Slovenia. In the aftermath of the shooting a fake photo of the shooter’s room, showing a rainbow flag and a NATO one, began circulating. In another case, a photo of an American comedian with muscular arms and a rifle in his hand was altered by artificial intelligence to make him look female, in order to claim that this was the photo of the shooter.
Fake news about the majority of mass shootings in the United States being carried out by transgender people later became even more widespread, and this has led to the diffusion of claims that transgender people are dangerous and unstable, thus reinforcing the already existing strands of disinformation.
FALSE NARRATIVE #04: LGBTQ+ people being given preferential treatment in sports
The issue of trans women participating in elite sport is a scientifically debated matter that takes into account different and equally legitimate points of view. However, a vast and growing amount of disinformation is trying to pollute the debate in many countries with several stories attempting to convey the message that LGBTQ+ people are favored to win or participate in sports competitions through demonstrably false news. As in the case of the transgender dancer Sophie Rebecca, who was falsely claimed to have been accepted into London’s Royal Ballet School, one of the most prestigious ballet schools in the world, despite being over the age limit for enrolment and just because she has changed sex.
“Is it right to fight a boy who declares himself a woman?”. Claims like these have accompanied many of the false stories concerning Brazilian MMA fighter Gabi Garcia, who has not only been described as transgender when she is not, but has been accused of winning fights because she used to be a man and even of killing another fighter in combat because of the physical imbalance. Similar false stories have concerned various sports disciplines. There is for example the false story of the “two trans athletes” who kissed on the podium of a women-only cycling race after finishing first and second. The race was actually an inclusive event with categories based on performance, not gender. Another story is about the awards ceremony at a swimming competition, where swimmers are falsely claimed to have walked out in protest at the transgender winner.
It is legitimate to believe that transgender people may have an unfair advantage in sporting competitions or that the current gender-based categories are not appropriate for their participation. But here there is demonstrably fake news, found in Spain, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia and other EU countries. In all cases, the message to be conveyed is that of the injustice perpetrated by transgender athletes, or a more general attitude of favoritism that sports organizations allegedly reserve for members of the LGBTQ+ community. To this end, it was also argued that the International Olympic Committee had made it “obligatory to send LGBT athletes to the Olympics”, but this was a manipulated video published on a Russian propaganda channel.
This last example introduces the fifth and last major narrative detected.
FALSE NARRATIVE #05: Conspiracy theories about the “dictatorship” of LGBTQ+ philosophy and “indoctrination”
A child was violently removed from his Muslim family by police simply because his parents “told him that Lgbtq+ is not right”. The false story is set in Germany, but has been traced also in Spain, Greece and many other EU countries. (A similar story has been traced in Sweden, where a gay couple were targeted with insults and threats on social media after it was claimed that one of their adopted children had been handed over to them after being kidnapped, as part of a strand of disinformation about child abductions by the authorities traced across the Nordic countries.) In Greece, it has been falsely claimed that the US Washington State would revoke custody from parents who do not consent to their children’s gender reassignment. This narrative is one of a forced imposition of inclusive values, which characterizes this last trend and has emerged as the most widespread throughout the European Union.
The fake news belonging to this narrative are extremely diverse and cover different topics. The messages conveyed are often used to sustain conspiracy theories, portraying the West as corrupt and imposing its ideology by force – as in the case of the child in Germany – or by devious methods. For example, a recent false claim is that the logo of the Rainforest Alliance, an association that promotes sustainability, on food packages actually indicates that the product contains atrazine, a dangerous pesticide that is misleadingly stated to “turn men into women” or “create homosexuality”. It is also argued that EU and other democratic governments and institutions are passing laws to enforce the new LGBTQ+ mandates or to punish organizations that do not comply with them. One of the most common stories in this vein is that several countries are banning the words “father”, “mother”, “boy” or “girl” in common usage, laws and educational settings or that, on the contrary, others are reintroducing them after they had been eliminated, although this had never happened. This is the case of the Italian government, led by Giorgia Meloni, who is falsely claimed (in Italy, Spain and Poland, for example) to have abolished the classification “parent 1” and “parent 2” or the “third gender” from Italian documents, although these terms never appeared in the first place.
In addition to coercion, there is also a strand that concerns the alleged indoctrination or revision of cultural identities. As in the case of the promotion of paedophilia, the involvement of children is used as a way to arouse hatred and hostility towards the LGBTQ+ community. Among the many hoaxes in this regard, those of sex education books for four-year-olds and transgender people giving lessons to “indoctrinate” children (for which they are also falsely accused to be paid 16,000 euros per hour), those of films that try to convince children to change their sex or those about the marketing of pregnant male dolls or a female child doll with a penis.
Specific cases at national level
Given the diversity of narratives and their overlap with each other or with other strands of disinformation (e.g. pro-Russia disinformation), these different messages often adapt to current events or to the political debate of individual States in order to support or oppose political issues. The following is an analysis of the two most interesting national cases of disinformation against the LGBTQ+ community in recent months.
In February, Spain passed a law which makes it easier for people to change their gender at the registry office. The so-called “Ley Trans” provides for “gender self-determination” on documents from the age of 16, with two self-declarations three months apart and without special medical or judicial authorisation. The new law has unleashed a massive wave of anti-LGBTQ+ disinformation.
Some stories, verified as false by independent fact-checking organizations, have claimed that it is possible to change sex in a day, others that thanks to the law it is possible to manipulate physical recruitment tests in the local police force, others that all minors between the ages of 12 and 16 have access to “genital modification”. These falsehoods have spilled over into the political debate, suggesting the idea of a supposed cultural hegemony. Even before the final approval of the law, fabricated statements by the Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez were circulating, according to which he called for the abolition of “traditional marriage” between men and women because it was Francoist. The statements were, however, taken from a satirical Twitter account.
The approval of the Spanish “Trans law” was also a subject of debate in Hungary. In particular, a pro-government think tank related to the governing party Fidesz falsely portrayed Spain’s newly introduced law as allowing gender reassignment surgery on minors, going so far as to describe Western Europe as being in the throes of “the madness of gender reassignment surgery”. This is an example of overlap with some narratives used by pro-Russia disinformation, whose rhetoric refers to the alleged depravity of the West and the “infection” of Ukraine, which is supposed to have fallen victim to this “degeneration”. In this regard, a doctored image purporting to be a photo of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenzky attending an LGBTQ+ pride in 1999 was widely circulated in the EU.
This fertile ground for disinformation has also produced one of the most widespread false stories in recent months: the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán allegedly announced Hungary’s exit from the EU because it “turned out to be an LGBT family, where instead of a father and a mother, the child is forced to have several parents, like in a concentration camp”. The fake, which overlaps anti-EU and anti-LGBTQ+ disinformation, circulated not only in Hungary, but also in France, Italy, Germany, Estonia, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Romania, Slovakia, Greece, Czech Republic, Croatia and almost every other EU country.
Enzo Panizio, journalist at Pagella Politica/Facta News and EDMO
Tommaso Canetta, deputy director of Pagella Politica/Facta News and coordinator of EDMO fact-checking activities