Out in the World: Reports find conversion therapy disinformation thriving online

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Thursday January 13, 2022
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A person uses Google to search online. Photo: Courtesy AdobeStock/Confidence
A person uses Google to search online. Photo: Courtesy AdobeStock/Confidence

Search engine and social media companies are failing to root out disinformation about widely debunked conversion therapy, according to two new reports released January 12.

The issue is so rampant online that researchers and report co-authors Wendy Via and Heidi Beirich, Ph.D., published two separate reports to spell out the conversion therapy issues and solutions for search engines and social media networks. They called on tech companies to act.

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."

The reports "Conversion Therapy Online: The Ecosystem: Online Search Algorithms Allow Access to Anti-LGBTQ+ Conversion Therapy Providers and Other Harmful Materials, Especially in Non-English Languages", and "Conversion Therapy Online: The Players: Anti-LGBTQ+ Conversion Therapy Proponents Who Wrongly Believe That Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Can and Should Be Changed Have Found A Home Online" were published by the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, or GPAHE.

The researchers did a deep dive into search engines and social media algorithms, examining a broad array of conversion therapy keywords and phrases searched for by users. Working with cultural and language experts, they examined search terms in English in the U.S., Ireland, and Australia; German in Germany; Spanish in Colombia; and English and Swahili in Kenya. The report exposes inequalities, racism, and homophobia that is allowed to operate unchecked online in many countries when it comes to conversion therapy.

The Ecosystem report found the internet is filled with disinformation, especially in languages other than English. It looked at Alphabet Inc.'s Google and YouTube; Meta's Facebook and Instagram; Twitter; Microsoft's Bing; and Amazon's Silk and Alexa.

The Players report profiles 25 conversion therapy providers around the world that the researchers identified as the most prominent, but it is far from exhaustive, Beirich and Via cautioned. They identified three interconnected groups operating around the world within the network. The Alliance for Therapeutic Choice, Scientific Integrity, and Joseph Nicolosi Sr. are largely made up of American practitioners, but they practice their "therapy" in other countries and collaborate abroad. Northern Ireland-based organization Core Issues Trust has several partners in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe. Exodus Global Alliance has offices in the U.S., Mexico, and Brazil with allies around the world.

"It wasn't until we got in there that we really realized the extent of the issue," said Via, president of GPAHE.

Veterans of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Beirich and Via, who are allies, co-founded GPAHE in 2020, according to the organization's website. The women researched conversion therapy as a part of their work following extremism and hate. They knew what tech companies were doing to protect users "wasn't enough," they noted, however, their experience did not prepare them for the online world of conversion therapy that is rampant in many countries, they said.

The researchers' findings weren't all bad. Beirich and Via discovered that leading search engine and social media companies' algorithms were pretty good at ferreting out the term "conversion therapy" and returning authoritative search results to users with some exceptions in every language except Swahili.

Messy and ugly

Searching for "conversion therapy" is simply scratching the surface. Peeling back the layers revealed "as soon as you get out of that sort of well-known term, it gets to be really messy and quite ugly," said Via, noting it was particularly bad in Kenya where Swahili is spoken.

"We just did not expect that it would be as bad as it was," Via said.

Search results in Swahili served up web pages that "treat conversion therapy as reputable," according to the organization's news release. Yet, the pages were filled with "hateful disinformation" that disparaged and mocked LGBTQ people, propaganda, and other material, even on the Wikipedia page.

Last year, openDemocracy exposed the unbridled practice of conversion therapy in East Africa, particularly in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, the Bay Area Reporter previously reported.

Search results in "Spanish was much better than Swahili," Via said. "But once you got outside those 'conversion therapy' terms, it just took a sharp downturn."

It's a different story in Germany. The country banned conversion therapy for minors nationally in 2020, the B.A.R. previously reported. The researchers also pointed out that Germany has strict hate speech laws. They believe these factors lead to their searches receiving more authoritative results for conversion therapy.

However, the country hasn't curbed misinformation about conversion therapy online. Wordsmiths using the term "reintegrative therapie," as the release stated, found less authoritative sources in their search results, as well as using Bing, which led to less authoritative information, including problematic YouTube videos, according to the release.

Bing, Silk, and Alexa all served up "significantly less authoritative" conversion therapy search term results in all languages and countries, stated Beirich and Via in the report. Amazon and Microsoft were "rarely, if ever, challenged on their search algorithms, despite having hundreds of millions of users globally," the researchers noted.

The researchers found social media networks were plagued with similar issues as search engines. Out of the leading social media sites examined, the report generally found that Facebook's search mechanism is more authoritative than Twitter's. YouTube is rife with pro-conversion therapy material and its search mechanism returns disinformation and propaganda more frequently than Facebook or Twitter, the report found.

Deeper down the rabbit hole the researchers went they uncovered determined and savvy conversion therapy operators. The operators are skilled search engine optimizers, creating and optimizing new search terms, shifting to align with keyword searches and phrases people were using, and exploiting less vigilant search engines, social networking platforms, and algorithm recommendations to favor their sites and social media profiles, as well as employing offline tactics.

"People don't just go looking for conversion therapy," said Via. "They look for solutions to what they are perceiving as a problem."

Online and offline, people can get ensnared in conversion therapy proponents' web simply with one referral, such as Brothers Road, an organization that is billed as helping men overcome their same-sex desires. Enter the organization's name into a search engine box, start clicking around, and soon the searcher is led to similar organizations riddled with anti-LGBTQ disinformation. The tech companies don't tag the sites or profiles with warnings.

The fix

Tech companies weren't diligent or vigilant, and were not keeping up with people's evolving language used in searches, Beirich and Via determined.

"As conversion therapy providers constantly rebrand their malicious efforts and introduce new terms, tech companies need to keep up to protect their users, Via said in the release.

Tech companies can tap cultural and language experts to identify harmful search languages and improve moderation to non-English languages and cultural competencies worldwide. They can tweak existing algorithms to accommodate terminology shifts used by conversion therapy proponents and providers and users', such as "same-sex attraction" and "reintegrative therapie," to deplatform sites and profiles that use anti-LGBTQ conversion therapy disinformation and ban providers pushing the practice.

"If something like this can be addressed by tweaking the currently existing algorithm, and not having to rely on content moderators as much ... it can be a huge win for everybody, particularly for those who are sent down the dangerous path of trying to change their orientation or identity," Via told the B.A.R.

Via knows it can be done, she said, pointing to Germany's example under the country's current laws.

"Somehow, all these companies are able to make it work in Germany," she said. "I feel like they can make it work everywhere, and they should, especially when people's lives are literally on the line."

This is just one of the suggestions the researchers have for tech companies, which received the report and can expect GPAHE to follow up, according to the release. Beirich and Via want tech companies to enforce community standards and hate speech policies already on the books; retool content algorithms to recommend reliable information; and rank more authoritative sites in all languages and countries pushing them to the top and de-rank sites delivering disinformation. They want tech companies to disallow payment processing platforms.

Turning their gaze specifically toward Bing and Silk, the researchers recommend creating search algorithms that surface authoritative information. They called for Amazon to remove conversion therapy providers from its Amazon Smile program and app stores to remove conversion therapy providers from its sales platforms.

"What we all want is for this to be taken quite seriously," said Via.

Beirich hopes tech companies will "clean up their platforms when it comes to anti-LGBTQ+ conversion therapy material."

"Getting rid of this harmful material online is an important step toward creating a society where LGBTQ+ people are accepted and loved and nobody feels like they want or need to change who they are," Beirich stated.

Google responds

Google was the only company that responded to the B.A.R.'s request for comment. In a January 13 statement, an unnamed Google spokesperson wrote that across the company's products "connecting people with relevant and helpful information is core to Google's mission."

"We design our search ranking systems to prioritize high-quality information, especially for important topics like health," the spokesperson wrote, "which have 'shown that our approach is effective.'"

The spokesperson pointed to Google Trends and third-party studies that found Google returned more authoritative search results to users than competing search engines. Google Trends showed "conversion therapy" continues to be the "most commonly searched term" for the topic.

Google stood by its search algorithms stating, "for this term, as the research shows, our results reflect how we design our systems around quality."

GPAHE's reports also noted Google and other leading search engines and social media company's search results for "conversion therapy" returned "generally authoritative results in all languages except Swahili," according to the release.

The Google spokesperson pointed to a Stanford University study about search results using Google's competitor, Bing, in 2019. Bing holds 33% of the search market, including its partnerships with Apple, Yahoo, DuckDuck Go, and AOL. The study found search results in Bing returned an "alarming amount of disinformation" to users.

Users might not be aware a search using Apple's Safari, Yahoo, DuckDuck Go, and AOL is actually powered by Bing, according to the Stanford University study.

Regarding alternative conversion therapy terms, the Google spokesperson stated searchers "can find what's available on the web, but we aim to not show people low quality or misleading results if they're not looking for them."

Responding to GPAHE's report findings for conversion therapy searching YouTube, which is also owned by Alphabet, Google's parent company, the spokesperson defended the social video platform. "On YouTube, we point viewers to authoritative sources like the Trevor Project for conversion therapy-related searches and remove hateful and harassing content against the LGBTQ+ community that violates our policies," the spokesperson stated.

Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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