The entire point of eliminationist rhetoric like the right’s ongoing smear of the LGBTQ community as pedophilic “groomers” is never simply to “own the libs”—it’s to create permission: permission to direct violence freely at the targeted minority group. When it’s as vaguely defined and generalized as this trope, it’s also permission to direct violence against anyone in the general vicinity. And as Hunter says, it’s working.
This rhetoric has spread so rapidly and broadly that it set off alarms at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), who this week published a report examining the problem and its roots within social media. Among its key findings: Much of the hate is being generated by a handful of well-known right-wing influencers, and the companies in charge of the social-media platforms have been failing miserably at stopping its spread.
CCDH researchers found an alarming and intense increase in recent months in anti-LGBTQ hate rhetoric in social media, nearly all of it built around the baseless lie that LGBTQ people “groom” children for sexual exploitation and recruitment. The spread of the rhetoric has occurred simultaneously with a spike in hate crimes:
Through an over-time analysis, which quantifies tweets containing slurs like ‘groomers’ or ‘pedophiles’ in the context of conversations about LGBTQ+ people between January and July of 2022, CCDH researchers found that the volume of tweets engaging in ‘grooming’ discourse increased by 406% in the month following the passage of the ‘Don’t Say Gay or Trans’ bill in Florida.
Far-right groups with a broad range of ideological focuses, including neofascist white power groups like Patriot Front—which had 31 members arrested in Idaho while attempting to create a riot at a Pride event—and Christian nationalists, including fundamentalist preachers demanding that gay people be lined up and shot in the head—have been targeting Pride events around the nation this year while wielding “groomer” rhetoric. The ADL reported that it monitored seven in-person extremist activities targeting the LGBTQ community on one weekend alone, that of June 11 and 12.
While they all seem to have a variety of pseudo-rationales for their irrational hatreds, the one thing they share in common in these attacks is the vicious eliminationist demonization using rhetoric—such as labeling every LGBTQ person and their defenders “groomers”—identifying them as predatory pedophiles, either actual or potential. For the Proud Boys—who have been developing an antidemocratic strategy of deploying their thuggery at primarily local events organized by others—it’s proven an ideal fit, leading them to show up to harass parents and children at Pride-related library events and similar situations. White nationalists and other neofascist groups have shown up to harass the LGBTQ community in concert with Christian nationalists at locales around the country.
As Media Matters’ John Kneffel observes, much of this hateful narrative is being generated in ostensibly mainstream conservative quarters by such social media influencers as @LibsOfTikTok. One of the primary generators of the hate campaign in Texas and elsewhere is a woman named Kelly Neidert, the founder of Protect Texas Kids, which has been organizing a number of the protests outside Pride events, including one in Dallas that drew a crowd of white nationalist Groypers to harass parents and kids.
Neidert—who has described herself online as a “Christian fascist”—earned a permanent suspension from Twitter after she posted: “Let’s start rounding up people who participate in Pride events.”The primary superspreaders of the viral “groomer” rhetoric were identified by CCDH researchers, who were able to assess the 500 most-viewed hateful “grooming” tweets from its wider sample of some 989,547 tweets. Those 500 tweets were viewed an estimated 72 million times in total and received 399,260 likes and retweets.
The researchers found that tweets from just 10 people were viewed an estimated 48 million times, equivalent to 66% of the reach for the most-viewed hateful tweets. That list of 10 people is comprised of well-known far-right figures:
1. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Georgia congresswoman
2. James Lindsay, popular “anti-woke” activist and author
3. Lauren Boebert, Colorado congresswoman
4. Chaiya Raichik, activist behind “LibsofTikTok” account
5. Tim Young, right-wing comedian and author
6. Christina Pushaw, press secretary for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis
7. Frank “Drew” Hernandez, pundit for Turning Point USA (TPUSA)
8. Chad Prather, right-wing pundit for BlazeTV
9. Jack Posobiec, white-nationalist provocateur and TPUSA pundit
10. “Matt’s Idea Shop,” right-wing pundit for The Daily Wire
Pushaw played a critical role in spawning the “groomer” rhetoric. In an attempt to reframe Florida’s DeSantis-backed “don’t say gay” legislation, Pushaw alternatively described it as “the Anti-Grooming Bill” in early March, tweeting that if you’re against it, “you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.”
This was, in fact, language directly inspired by the QAnon conspiracy cult, which believes that a range of Democrats, “globalists,” and liberals (including many from Hollywood) are part of a massive worldwide pedophilia ring. For the most part, this rhetoric had circulated on the fringes of the conspiracist right, but in no time at all, Pushaw’s tweets made “grooming” a mainstream right-wing talking point.
Pushaw was not the first to suggest characterizing the bill this way, but her tweet received an estimated 2 million views. After her tweet, the phrase “anti-grooming bill” had been tweeted 44,028 times.
At around the same time, an anonymous poster at the white-nationalist-friendly message board 4chan suggested that Twitter users simply respond to anyone defending the LGBTQ community with the retort, “OK, groomer”—which quickly spread as the most common form of the rhetoric on social media.
Fox News ran a number of segments in March and April about pedophilia, while a range of Fox pundits began describing parents and teachers who allow children to express their transgender identity as groomers. On Fox and Friends, one guest suggested children were “being ripened for grooming for sexual abuse by adults.” On America Reports, guest Charlie Hurt said affirmative care for trans children “goes beyond just predatory grooming” into “psychological torture.”
In the month following the passage and signing of the Florida law, the volume of “groomer” rhetoric increased by 406%—some 6,607 tweets a day overall on average, up from 1,307 the month before; some 1,385 tweets a day used the phrase “OK groomer” on average. The rhetoric inspired conservative legislators around the nation to take advantage of the risinig hatefulness to propose and pass anti-LGBTQ laws in states around the nation. As the report notes:
While the vast majority of Americans support nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people, this vocal minority is having an impact. Legislators in state houses across the country introduced 344 anti-LGBTQ+ bills this session, and 25 of them passed. These bills and laws attack the LGBTQ+ community, particularly transgender and non-binary young people and their families, preventing them from accessing age-appropriate medical care, playing sports with their friends, or even talking about who they are in school.
The report also adroitly observes that the “grooming” rhetoric is rising in the context of the 2022 elections, part of “a coordinated and concerted effort to attack LGBTQ+ kids to rile up extreme members of their base, the only voting bloc they are moving on these issues, ahead of the midterm elections.”
“Let’s just be very clear that this dangerous anti-LGBTQ rancor is being spun up by radical people like the Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the world, but it’s pure politics,” Justin Unga, HCR’s director of strategic initiatives, told Daily Kos. “They are inflaming the most extreme elements of their fan base to gain notoriety, to build a brand that they see as politically and financially profitable.
“It is no mistake. It is no surprise that Marjorie Taylor Greene is one of the most prolific fundraisers in Congress, and this is part of their reason why. The worst, worst of the mega extremists like Taylor Greene, like DeSantis, are using everything at their disposal, whether that is Trump-style rallies, or fundraising emails. Even believers of government itself, in the case of DeSantis with a ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law, will excite the most radicalized people, to copycat Trump, to franchise his brand of radicalism for themselves.”
At the same time, hate crimes featuring “groomer” rhetoric began to spike this year, intensifying a larger trend of rising anti-LGBTQ bias-motivated acts over the previous two years. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism (CSHE) at Cal State-San Bernardino’s annual report on hate crimes notes that anti-LGBTQ attacks already had increased 51.3% in 2021.
“There is a certain trajectory that targeted aggression now takes where influencers and various strata of social media retransmit and legitimize which specific or intertwined groups are appropriate targets of aggression within a subculture. This set of subcultures expanded, mainstreamed and coalesced during the pandemic,” CHSE director Brian Levin told Daily Kos.
“Because these stereotypes and conspiracy theories are now firmly a part of an amorphous subculture that has a wide online socio-political presence, there is a longer half-life, where these prejudices and falsehoods have a longer presence online, but also with how long violent hate crime spikes stay elevated. We are seeing sharp spikes, even among groups where hate crime levels were declining suffer sharp elevated spikes, of longer duration. 2020 had the longest spike ever, and anti-Asian resurged in 2021 to a record—all this with an online parallel. In 2022 we are seeing various spikes including against transgender people.”
The CCDH report notes that, numerically speaking, “the last two years have been the deadliest for transgender people, particularly Black transgender women”:
Reports of violence and intimidation against LGBTQ+ people have been making news across the country, while anti-LGBTQ+ stigma is driving alarmingly high rates of depression, anxiety and suicide. More than 60 percent of LGBTQ+ youth said their mental health has deteriorated as a result of recent efforts to restrict access to things like gender-affirming care for transgender youth. And it’s unsurprisingly worse for LGBTQ+ youth of color, who are more likely to attempt suicide (27%) than other LGBTQ+ high schoolers (22%) and non-LGBTQ+ high schoolers (5%).
“The effect side of the equation here is far more damaging and broad-reaching,” Unga told Daily Kos. “There is no doubt that the anti-trans rhetoric that we’re seeing, only fuels the stigma. And that in turn, fuels fatal violence against the trans and non-binary communities. We know this will affect particularly Black transgender women. In just the last month alone, seven transgender people were lost to fatal violence. This is the type of thing that is being inflamed by this rhetoric, and it has real-life consequences.”
The companies that operate the social-media platforms where this hate has festered have flailed haplessly in responding to the problem. Twitter, for example, recently announced it intended to crack down on “groomer” and similar rhetoric conflating the LGBTQ community with pedophilia.
That move, at least briefly, made matters worse: In the week afterward, there were 8,075 tweets per day on average featuring the slurs to describe the LGBTQ community. When the CCDH researchers decided to test how assiduously Twitter enforced the policy, they reported 100 of the most-viewed hate-tweets to the company via its reporting tools. It only removed one of them.
Twitter also has demonstrated those policies are only for normal people like you and me: For officeholders like Greene and Arizona legislator Wendy Rogers, it chooses to simply hide the tweet so it cannot be retweeted or replied to.
But Twitter is hardly the only offender. CCDH researchers began looking at paid advertisements on Facebook and Instagram featuring the “groomer” rhetoric, and found 59 paid ads promoting the narrative, which were viewed over 2.1 million times in total. When they reported the content to the platforms, only one ad was removed:
The ads were purchased and ran between March and August 2022 during the height of Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay or Trans’ bill controversy and often focused on Disney’s opposition to the bill, with language that claims opponents of ‘Don’t Say Gay or Trans’ are protecting pedophiles or that teaching about LGBTQ+ issues in schools amounts to ‘radical sexual grooming’. Having spoken out against the bill, Disney became a target in this narrative and was the subject of over half of the Facebook ads in this study. The company has also been targeted on Twitter, where 345,152 tweets mentioning Disney appear alongside slurs like ‘predator’, ‘pedophilia’, and ‘grooming’.
The platforms’ parent company, Meta, accepted up to $24,987 for the ads. Of the 59 ads, 32 of them focused “grooming” accusations on Disney after the company came out in opposition of the Florida legislation.
Unga emphasizes that this is all part of a coordinated campaign. “One thing that I hope that we are underscoring with this report, is a person might be tempted to think that there is an organic rise in anti-LGBTQ sentiments—in other words, the number of people who oppose LGBTQ people is growing. I’m sure that has a lot of people concerned, but what this report actually shows is that is not true. There is not an organic rise, but rather social media has given a limitless platform to amplify hate from a small group of people.
“They can use that social media as a megaphone to reach tens of millions, potentially billions. The last point I will punctuate here, is this is a concern that is not for the future for us to conjure on in the longer term. I would make the case that this problem is timebound, and directly rooted in the midterm elections. It is no coincidence that people have inflamed and used this rhetoric during the period of the primary elections.”
Unga also observed that the onus for this problem rests ultimately with the social-media companies that earn their profits from stirring up controversy among the public.
“I would remind folks about the 2020 election, the 2016 election, and how social media was used to organize, proliferate hateful messages and misinformation. The reason this report is timely, is we want to make sure that people are looking at what social media has the ability to do,” he said. “And we want social media companies to examine whether or not they are prepared for the midterm elections, in ways that perhaps they were not prepared in prior years.”