LGBTQ Agenda: Report on global conversion therapy misinformation finds some improvement

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday February 6, 2024
Share this Post:
A new report by the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism reveals that misinformation about conversion therapy is still easily found online, though some improvements have been made by social media companies. Image: Courtesy GPAHE
A new report by the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism reveals that misinformation about conversion therapy is still easily found online, though some improvements have been made by social media companies. Image: Courtesy GPAHE

An Alabama-based nonprofit that studies hate and extremism has come out with a follow-up report about so-called conversion therapy on search engines and social media platforms that has found some improvement over the last two years. Misinformation in non-English languages, however, continues to be widespread.

The Bay Area Reporter previously reported about the last two reports from the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, or GPAHE, both released in 2022, which found rampant disinformation promoting conversion therapy online, and proffered solutions for tech companies.

The new report, published in January, is titled "Conversion Therapy Online: The Ecosystem in 2023 — Search Algorithms Continue to Preference Harmful Anti-LGBTQ+ Conversion Therapy Material and Providers, Especially in Non-English Languages."

Conversion therapy attempts to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity. The practice is widely debunked by the United Nations and medical associations around the world, with some organizations denouncing it as a form of "torture."

Like the 2022 reports, the latest version looked at online content in different countries and languages: this edition examined content in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swahili, and German.

The 2024 report began by stating things had improved.

"GPAHE's 2022 research was successfully used to educate tech companies on how they were failing users regarding disinformation about conversion therapy," it stated.

Indeed, Wendy Via, a straight ally who is the co-founder and president of GPAHE, told the B.A.R. that TikTok, a Chinese-owned company, agreed to ban conversion therapy on its platform.

"It's the most complete we've seen, in terms of results in terms of their algorithms," Via told the B.A.R., referring to the popular social media site. "The other thing that's happening is that Bing — which people don't think about Bing a lot, but it [has] millions of people participating outside the U.S. — when we first brought this to Bing's attention, it was as bad as what we find in Swahili, but now you have very authoritative information."

Bing is a search engine owned and operated by Microsoft.

Responding to a request for comment, an unnamed Microsoft spokesperson stated, "We are deeply committed to creating safe experiences online, and we take seriously the responsibility to protect our users from harmful content and conduct online. Our goal is to always provide fair, balanced, and comprehensive content and will continue to take any necessary action to help create a respectful experience for our users."

The 2024 report continues, however, that "challenges remain, particularly in the context of non-English languages, in the enforcement of the rules banning conversion therapy online, and in the skill with which promoters use social media to spread their dangerous messages while circumventing social media content moderation rules."

Via told the B.A.R. that the report simulates what someone struggling with finding out about or coming to terms with being LGBTQ might discover in online search engines and how accurate the information is. Since conversion therapy, in a very strict sense, is widely discredited, people claiming to have ways of changing one's sexual orientation have resorted to new terminology, Via said.

"So, if a young person, if they or their family member is going looking for information, they look up 'conversion therapy,' and it's going to be OK, basically. OK in the U.S., but not in other countries," Via said, referring to accurate information. "At least you'll get a banner saying 'go to this organization that can help you,' or a Wikipedia page that's authoritative. But if you look up 'I don't want to be gay,' or 'is it a sin to be gay?' or — most commonly — 'I have unwanted same-sex attraction,' when they look up these things, that's [when] they are going to get organizations and the people who push people that address unwanted same-sex attraction." She was referring to organizations that use discredited information to promote conversion therapy.

For example, in Mexico, searching for "the term 'conversion therapy' returned authoritative results, but mostly in Spanish, perhaps reflecting that the topic is in the news currently as Mexico is moving to adopt a federal law against the practice, which is already banned in 16 states," the report stated.

However, "a Google search for 'same-sex attraction' returns links to the Mormon Church material, Courage International, Juan Varela's evangelical Institute of Family Formation based out of Spain, and Notivida from Argentina, which links to the U.S. Catholic Medical Association. Bing presents only two authoritative results, with the rest leaning heavily to Mormon Church and Catholic sites," the report stated.

In Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, and the Ivory Coast — French-speaking countries in West Africa — the search results were largely influenced by Catholicism, according to the report.

"Results for 'is it a sin to be gay' returned mostly sites saying yes it is, but it isn't a crime, which is the pope's position," the report stated. "Results centered around the pope's words and Catholic sites affirming his views. Nothing was returned regarding conversion therapy. After the first page, the results degrade quickly, returning several biblical sites. The remainder of the search terms largely returned unrelated materials."

In January 2023, Pope Francis condemned laws that criminalize homosexuality, saying in a Spanish-language interview, "We are all children of God and God loves us as we are and with the strength that each of us fights for our dignity. Being homosexual isn't a crime. It's not a crime. Yes, but it's a sin. OK, but first let us distinguish between sin and crime." In December he approved blessing same-sex couples, as long as it is clear it is not tantamount to marriage, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

The search term "reintegrative therapy," another term for conversion therapy, turned up pages claiming that Joseph Nicolosi Jr. — the son of Joseph Nicolosi Sr., the so-called father of conversion therapy, who continued in his late father's footsteps — was successful in his efforts.

"Companies have refused to incorporate the most prevalent term used by conversion therapy providers — 'unwanted same-sex attraction,'" the report states, referring to social media sites. It concludes that social media companies "must incorporate 'same-sex attraction' and 'unwanted same-sex attraction' into their algorithm that moderates conversion therapy content and elevate authoritative content."

Via said that "we're working on it," meaning it will be a focal point of future advocacy efforts.

"The social media platforms, the search engines: they have the ability to save lives and improve mental health if they would just make some tweaks to their algorithm," she said.

TikTok, Meta Inc. (which runs Facebook and Instagram) and Google (which also runs YouTube) did not return requests for comment.

GPAHE spun off of the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2019; it is headquartered in Montgomery.

LGBTQ Agenda is an online column that appears weekly. Got a tip on queer news? Contact John Ferrannini at [email protected]

Never miss a story! Keep up to date on the latest news, arts, politics, entertainment, and nightlife. Sign up for the Bay Area Reporter's free weekday email newsletter. You'll receive our newsletters and special offers from our community partners.

Support California's largest LGBTQ newsroom. Your one-time, monthly, or annual contribution advocates for LGBTQ communities. Amplify a trusted voice providing news, information, and cultural coverage to all members of our community, regardless of their ability to pay -- Donate today!