Sometimes it’s a sudden influx of people they don’t know leaving laughing reactions on their public posts. Other times strangers lash out with hateful comments. In the most serious cases, they’ll randomly receive a threat from someone they’ve never met or interacted with online.
Though the attacks vary, they’re all directed at transgender people, unwitting targets of transphobic Facebook groups.
Kiwi Farms, a message board popular with far-right trolls, recently conducted a campaign of terror against a Twitch streamer and transgender activist that led to the site being taken down. But mass harassment is far from a fringe phenomenon.
Facebook, the world’s largest social media network, is also home to an aggressive and highly engaged community of groups dedicated to denigrating and harassing transgender people, convincing them to kill themselves and hurling slurs. It houses a sprawling, seemingly endless slate of public and private groups and pages committed to trolling and disparaging transgender people. Some of these groups are so organized and sophisticated that they run honeypots to keep their pages up and running, masquerading as legitimate businesses to catch infiltrators who attempt to report their bigoted activities.
It’s all part of a newfound moral panic, launched over the past year, that has seen digital harassment move offline, as massive accounts like Libs of TikTok on Twitter led to armed Proud Boys and white nationalists showing up at LGBTQ events, ready to commit acts of violence.
Transgender people and their allies say that Facebook has shown no interest in doing anything about it.
Meta, which owns Facebook, did not respond to a Daily Dot inquiry.
Maeve is a disabled transgender woman navigating the first year of her transition. Though she isn’t entirely out yet, the process of embracing her true self has recently given her the confidence to post about her transition online.
It didn’t take long for Facebook transphobes to find her.
The Daily Dot contacted Maeve after being tipped to a private transphobic Facebook group that posted her photo. In a phone conversation last month, Maeve told the Daily Dot that people started attacking her online shortly after she commented on a fundraiser posted in a public meme group.
The next day, strangers seemingly randomly began leaving laughing reactions on her Facebook posts. Maeve, who asked for her last name to remain confidential, also received a chilling direct message. “You literally need [to be] beheaded,” the person wrote, using numbers in place of some letters in an apparent effort to evade enforcement. They also called her a slur for homosexual men, again using numbers for letters.
“No matter how prepared you are for that sort of thing, it kind of ruins your day,” Maeve said.
She reported the message for violating Facebook’s community standards. Facebook prohibits hate speech based on a person’s gender identity and sexual orientation. Yet the company did nothing, she said. She sent the Daily Dot a screenshot of a message from Facebook saying that the hateful message calling for her to be beheaded didn’t break its rules.
Other transgender people shared similar stories to Maeve’s after the Daily Dot contacted them upon seeing their images, profiles, and posts in transphobic Facebook groups.
YouTuber Demi, whose Reddit posts wound up in a transphobic group, told the Daily Dot via direct message that she believes people in these groups “troll the trans channels and try to ruin people’s days.”
Kayla Gogarty, deputy research director at Media Matters for America, told the Daily Dot that Facebook doesn’t effectively enforce its own rules.
“They claim to have this policy against hate speech,” Gogarty said. “It’s hard to always know exactly how they interpret it because a lot of times they’ll narrowly interpret it or enforce those policies.”
These groups primarily focus on transgender women and range in membership from a few dozen to many thousands. Most are private. Plenty are public.
Some of the groups have been on Facebook for years, others newly created. All these groups’ popularity appears to have increased precipitously in recent months as LGBTQ issues, particularly concerning transgender people, became the frontline of the culture war.
Some of the group’s names are offensive and overtly anti-trans, like “Oh look another weirdo from the girl-dick mafia.” In other cases, such as Department of Psychology, Yell Gee Bee Tee Wing, it’s not as obvious. The former is a private group with fewer than 2,000 members; the latter a public “blog” with 77,000 followers. The content on these and all the others is largely the same—posts mocking and dehumanizing trans people and saying they don’t belong in various spaces or society in general.
The content ranges from juvenile remarks like jokes about facial hair or presumptions about various gender-affirming procedures to sinister and threatening accusations. Baseless allegations of pedophilia, mental illness, and calls for violence against transgender people are common.
Much of the content wouldn’t be that distinct from 4chan or Kiwi Farms.
The featured photo of a private group called “I can’t take threats seriously from someone who can die from misgendering” is a cartoon drawing of dangling feet with the transgender pride flag transposed over it, implying a hanging. The caption reads “dead trains nibbas be like: ‘was/were.’” (“Trains” is a common code word for “trans;” “nibbas” for the N-word.) The group has nearly 8,000 members.
Members of many of these groups masquerade as feminists or child advocates. Their professed concern for (cisgender) women’s rights and fearmongering about pedophilia is merely a thin veneer for rampant transphobia, however. Posts and comments in these groups almost exclusively consist of mocking transgender women and nonbinary people who don’t “pass” for a particular gender.
Like the person who sent Maeve the threatening message with numbers in place of letters, many people in these Facebook groups take precautions to avoid getting kicked off the platform by misspelling slurs or using code words, such as “troons” or “trains” as a substitution for transgender and “terve” for “TERF” (trans-exclusionary radical feminist).
“The administrators in a lot of these groups are very good at trying to walk that line [to avoid suspension],” Gogarty said.
Some of the groups claim they’re not hateful and insist they don’t dox people. They may not include phone numbers and physical addresses, but they make no effort to mask their targets’ names and where to find them online. A member of a transphobic group recently posted a transgender woman’s profile photo, adding “open comments.” Members responded by launching a volley of hate, mockery, and the ubiquitous laughing reactions at her.
That’s the point. Mason, who researches transphobic groups, likens posting a transgender person’s photo with their name and handle as a form of digital vigilantism.
“These groups implicitly know what will happen when they post someone’s picture,” Mason said.
Some of their targets are public figures like swimmer Lia Thomas or mixed martial arts fighter Fallon Fox. Far more often they’re private individuals like Maeve who are simply living their lives.
Facebook appears to be turning a blind eye.
There are groups and individuals who’ve taken it upon themselves to be proactive about the escalating transphobia and bigotry on Facebook. Multiple researchers who use fake accounts to monitor such groups contacted the Daily Dot with warnings about them. The Facebook community Being Phobic is Sus Modmin Team researches and warns people about transphobic, homophobic, and queerphobic groups. Via direct message last month, the admins told the Daily Dot that they started the group out of “frustration” with Facebook’s reporting system and its unwillingness to do anything about what they described as a rise in transphobic groups on the platform.
“We find that reporting a group, comment, or post that is hateful is usually returned with a message that it ‘did not violate community standards,’” they said.
“This response has been received for many reports, including the more extreme examples of people making fun of the trans suicide rate, doxing/stalking groups, general hate speech, and encouraging violence.”
Members and moderators of transphobic Facebook groups represent a broad cross-section of the population both demographically and politically. Some of the women in these groups insist that they’re merely feminists—feminists whose focus online seems to be tearing down transgender women. Multiple moderators of these groups claim that they’re progressive cisgender lesbians.
“It’s all so unnerving because these people exist out in the world and you never really know who believes as they do,” Mason said.
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Maeve, who received a death threat after being targeted by a transphobic group, said that she understands where her attackers are coming from because she used to be a lot like them.
“I used to be like these people when I was younger … I was raised in a conservative family and I was once a very online young man,” she said.
She feels sympathy for them because she “could’ve ended up just like [them].”
“I don’t hate. I’m upset that they, another member of my human family, has fallen so far that they have to be like that.”
Many of the groups are clearly working together to ramp up hate for transgender people, though the level of coordination varies. Membership overlaps between these groups. The same people also often moderate multiple transphobic groups.
“There seems to be a lot of overlap between the most hateful groups,” the admins of Being Phobic is Sus Modmin Team said. “Users can be moderators of as many groups as they want, so it’s not unusual to see similar Facebook groups have the same group of people running each of them.”
The level of coordination also helps the groups stay online.
Mason, the researcher, told the Daily Dot that she’s found multiple transphobic groups moderated by people who claim to be employed by the same company, RedRock Tech. RedRock Tech describes itself as a coding company that seeks to empower women in technology. Yet all its posts mock transgender people.
RedRock Tech is one of many fronts moderators of transphobic Facebook groups use as a “honey pot” to identify infiltrators. Moderators list the fake company as their employer; infiltrators of the transphobic group then unknowingly out themselves by contacting it to report their “employee” for being involved in the group.
RedRock Tech admittedly doesn’t make much of an effort to obfuscate its true nature. But a casual observer could easily assume that it is what it says—a coding company that seeks to empower women— and want to warn it about its employees.
RedRock Tech didn’t deny that it’s a front for people who run transphobic groups. “I don’t give a fuck what you’re doing,” it said via direct message on Thursday morning.
Another fake company Mason pointed to purports to sell rope. At first glance, the page looks legitimate.
The front falls apart upon further inspection. Its name is an acronym for a slur for homosexual men and the address it gives is for a flagpole company. On Wednesday, a representative from the flagpole company told the Daily Dot they’ve never heard of the supposed rope broker.
The page leaves further clues about its true nature. A day after the page was created, it posted an image of rainbow-hued rope claiming it had a 41% off sale for Pride Month. Mason said this is a nod to the fact that 41% of transgender people will attempt suicide at some point in their lives.
Creating a fake Facebook page for a nonexistent company to catch infiltrators who snitch on them underscores how sophisticated the network of transphobic pages have become—which advocates say both points to how pervasive transphobia is on the platform and how Facebook’s inaction has emboldened bigots.
But in the wake of this rise of hate, people who have been on the receiving end, like Maeve, say enough is enough.
“When you make a monster so big you can’t control it, you’ve gotta do something,” she said.