In a political landscape already fraught for the transgender community, right-wing media organizations have found a new way to bypass platform guidelines prohibiting hate speech, by producing documentaries advocacy groups are calling “propaganda” and promoting them with carefully edited trailers.
Last week, many users who logged onto X (formerly Twitter) were served a large advertisement for Detrans, a documentary created by the Prager University Foundation that claims to explore the “dangers of gender-affirming care.” The 21-minute film features interviews with individuals who once identified as transgender and later returned to the gender they were assigned at birth, but uses the large swath of its time to criticize gender-affirming care for minors. Prior to Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, documentaries with similar claims and premises, like Matt Walsh’s 2022 film What Is A Woman, could not be advertised because they misgendered trans individuals, a rule that has since been dissolved during Musk’s tenure. (A spokesperson for the platform did not respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.)
But the problem isn’t only on X.
Starting in June, right-wing outlet The Epoch Times began promoting its own documentary, Gender Transformation: The Untold Realities, with both skippable and unskippable advertisements that play before users are able to watch YouTube videos. While both X and YouTube maintain guidelines that prohibit targeted hate speech, most of the policies directly involve videos hosted on the site rather than ads. The site also prohibits advertisements that “display shocking content or promote hatred, intolerance, discrimination, or violence,” but negative events and imagery from professional media are evaluated under different criteria, which allows for documentaries and news organizations so long as the source is clearly linked.
In Gender Transformation, The Epoch Times presents several arguments that imply the transgender movement is being funded by high-ranking government officials, directly causing suicide and inflated death rates, and is promoted by medical organizations in an attempt to make as much money as possible— all claims that would most likely prevent the video from being monetized and could lead to its removal if posted on YouTube. The film also includes at least one instance of a mother misgendering her child, whom she has indicated is a trans man but continues to use she/her pronouns and refer to him as “her daughter.” While YouTube has no direct policy against misgendering, they have used their rules against “hateful and derogatory content” to demonetize and remove numerous videos with similar themes and messaging in the past, including dozens of videos from right-wing pundit Candace Owens. But because The Epoch Times and Prager U have classified their videos as documentaries, and edited the trailers to remove any potentially violating content, the companies are allowed to directly promote videos that would violate YouTube and X’s hate speech policies if posted in their entirety.
On their own, the promotion of violating content with ads and edited trailers allows right-wing organizations to circumvent hate speech protections. In conjunction with concerted efforts by Republican lawmakers to strip health care rights away from the transgender community, the promotion of violating content with ads and edited trailers doesn’t just allow right-wing organizations to circumvent hate speech protections — it could cause direct violence to LGBTQ+ people. Over the past two years, Republican lawmakers across the country have targeted health care and transition care for minors, not only blocking hormone therapy and puberty-blocking drugs but spearheading bills that would make care providers felons. Researchers have found also link between anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and a rise in violence. According to the FBI’s annual crime report, anti-LGBTQ hate crimes grew over 19 percent in 2022. And 2023 reports from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, the Anti-Defamation League, and GLAAD all found increased incidents of violence (including harassment, vandalism, and assault) in states where conservative politicians have spearheaded anti-LGBTQ bills. When trans experiences are discounted or vilified, researchers found, danger follows.
But the threat of violence hasn’t been enough to enact stricter hate speech policies from YouTube or X. In a statement to Rolling Stone, a spokesperson for Google acknowledged the ad guidelines but said the documentaries were not in violation. “We prohibit ads on our platform that incite hatred against or promote discrimination of an individual or group on the basis of their gender identity,” the spokesperson said. “We have reviewed the ads in question and they do not violate our policies.” The Epoch Times did not respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment. But a spokesperson for Prager U said they were “thrilled” by the reach of the Detrans ad on X. “Young Americans are being manipulated by social media and medical professionals to undergo life-altering surgeries that often come with major regret and the stories of detransitioners deserve to be told,” a Prager U spokesperson said. According to NBC News, the Detrans takeover ad was part of a $1 million marketing campaign. (According to a review of more than two dozen studies, roughly one percent of transgender people express regret, and fewer than that detransition.)
While YouTube and X have maintained that documentaries like these do not violate already existing policies around hate speech and harassment, advocates and trans community members tell a different story. Sophie, a trans YouTuber, had multiple viewers tell her The Epoch Times ad appeared before several of her videos. “As a trans woman I’m beyond disgusted,” she tells Rolling Stone. “I’m insulted that YouTube would let an ad like this run on their platform at all, let alone on content by trans people.” The Human Rights Campaign also condemned the X advertisement, calling it “a stain” on the platform. “So-called documentaries like the one peddled by PragerU do nothing more than spread misinformation and stigmatize transgender people,” HRC President Kelley Robinson said in a statement. “Given the growing threats of violence faced by the transgender community, offering a platform to this type of hate-filled propaganda is not just immoral — it’s dangerous.”