Fun with filters

The chat app SnapChat is back in the headlines after its new gender-swapping filter went viral. The filter makes boys look like girls and vice-versa, and as you can see above the results are pretty funny – although I seem to have the dubious honour of being the only person who looks older when the feminising filter is switched on. Boo!

I think it’s just a bit of daft fun, albeit horribly stereotypical in its idea of gendered appearance, but on trans forums I’ve seen a range of reactions from trans people: some like me just want to see what it does and how daft the results are, but others see what they might look like after transition – or more poignantly, what they might have looked like had they transitioned. Not everybody is in a place where they can be themselves.

Like anything else on the internet, some people have concerns about the filter – Time magazine covers the issues here.

While many acknowledged that the filter is fun, for some it’s been jarring to see their social networks manipulating their gender so casually. Others have said that they are concerned that some people are using the filter in problematic ways.

Most sensible concerns aren’t about the filters, but the way they’re being used. Some people – man people, inevitably – are using the filters to make profile pictures for dating apps. The intention is to have a laugh, and some have shared the saddeningly predictable responses they’ve received with hilarious consequences. But some people argue that what these people are doing ties into something that’s a lot darker, which is the concept of trapping.

“Trap” is a word some people use to describe trans people, primarily trans women, who don’t look trans; it’s a trope in some pornography where a man is seduced by a beautiful woman before, surprise! But out in the real world, trap is a slur associated with violence. There have been multiple occasions of very violent and sometimes fatal attacks on trans women, the perpetrators claiming the “trans panic” defence: I took her home, I didn’t realise she was trans, and when I discovered the truth I lost my mind. It’s a variation of the gay panic defence, and sadly it’s still a legal defence in many parts of the world.

As Cáel Keegan points out in the Time piece, playing around with gender is something many trans people don’t have the privilege to do in safety.

“If trans people are accused of trapping, it can be deadly,” said Keegan. “It’s a privilege to be able to play with being a different gender.”

I thought this post – which went viral on social media a few days ago – made a good point:

For trans people, transition is a lot more difficult and a lot more painful than playing with an app on a smartphone.

As one of Time’s interviewees put it:

At the end of the day, you get to just turn it off and it’s not sort of a reality for you.

Manufacturing consent

I’m indebted to Tennessee Pete on Twitter for the link to and commentary on this story:

As he put it:

This is such a good case study for manufacturing consent because it’s just… ‘in response to Iran’

In response to Iran doing what?

No, not in response to any provocation, just in response to Iran. The continued existence of Iran.

The Times on trial

Imagine if the BBC had been taken to a tribunal over allegations of bullying, bias and malpractice so serious the entire management team were made to appear as witnesses. Newspapers would be all over the story, with good reason.

As award-winning journalist Liz Gerard points out on Twitter, if you swap the BBC for The Times and Sunday Times, you get no coverage at all.

As she puts it:

Journalism is on trial here. Times editor John Witherow has been accused in open court of being a prejudiced bully who intimidates staff who disagree with him. An editor who sets an agenda and then tasks staff with proving his hypotheses. An editor “allergic” to facts.

An editor who brushed aside an award-winning journalist’s “significant misgivings” and insisted that he write a story about a child being “forced into Muslim foster care” whose source was an oligarch friend connected to the case.

His newspaper has been accused in open court – by two separate witnesses – of running a vendetta against transgender people. Of conjuring up and championing moral panic. Of distorting and corrupting journalistic values in pursuit of an agenda that pandered to the editor’s apparent dislike of various minority groups, including Muslims and transgender people.

As Gerard rightly says, these allegations may yet be proven incorrect. But the lack of coverage is quite remarkable. Imagine if the same things were being said about the BBC and this was their defence witness list.

  • The editor
  • The deputy editor
  • The former deputy editor
  • The executive editor
  • The group managing editor
  • The assistant managing editor
  • The former assistant managing editor
  • The director of HR editorial
  • The HR manager Scotland
  • The chief night editor
  • The former chief night editor
  • The Scotland editor
  • The deputy Scotland editor
  • The former deputy Scotland editor
  • The executive editor of the Sunday edition

One respondent, Jo Shaw, suggests one explanation for the lack of coverage:

if case law is established that toxic editorial positions can lead to prosecutions if they create a discriminatory environment for an employee, then this is a disaster for them. Other titles will equally be terrified… they do not want to pump oxygen into the story and risk a slew of legal actions against them by employees (LGBT+, Muslim, possibly even EU nationals) which might damage their ‘right’ to print any old discriminatory rubbish they want.

 

For God’s sake, vote

These are the politicians who passed the horrific anti-abortion bill in Alabama. Notice any similarities?

It’s easy to look across the Atlantic in horror at Dark Ages throwbacks such as these yahoos, but don’t forget that right here in the UK abortion is still illegal in Northern Ireland, as is equal marriage.

In Northern Ireland, the people most likely to be in favour of women’s reproductive freedom are much less likely to vote than their religious counterparts.

In the 2015 UK elections, 70% of Catholic women voted but just 55% of Protestant women did. That wasn’t a one-off, either. The pattern has been evident in elections from 1998 onwards.

There are multiple reasons for this, including disengagement from politics and a belief that politicians of all stripes aren’t trustworthy. In the US, the religious right actively engages in voter suppression. But the fact is that if you’re a woman or a member of a minority group, voting isn’t optional: it’s crucial. Because the people who want to restrict your rights vote religiously. Pun fully intended.

There’s a wider issue here, which is about representation more generally. Why aren’t politicians more representative of their diverse constituents?

Here’s Bernard Farga of Indiana University. Farga is the author of The Turnout Gap: Race, Ethnicity, and Political Inequality in a Diversifying America. Farga answers an interesting question: how can a country such as the USA, which is becoming significantly more diverse, elect politicians who cater only for one specific group – right-leaning white people?

I think there’s a countervailing force to this “demographics are destiny,” which is polarization. At the same time that demographic change has happened, we’ve seen racial polarization of partisanship where whites have become substantially more Republican. And despite the fact that the nation is becoming more diverse, and maybe 40 percent minority by 2020, whites are still the majority by far, and will be the plurality group for generations to come… if the parties split on race, then the party that’s catering to white voters will still be dominant.

One reason for that is that the groups the politicians choose not to represent have much lower voter turnout.

…the increase in the minority population is disproportionately among very low-turnout groups: Asian Americans and Latinos. Latinos are the largest minority group in the country; Asian Americans are the fastest-growing minority group in the country. So, these two groups, where turnout rates are as much as 30 percentage points lower than the turnout of rate of whites, that’s the demographic change we’re seeing.

So that means the voting population is lagging far behind the demographic shift that we’re seeing otherwise. And when you combine that with polarization, it means that demographics aren’t destiny… demographically, whites are still a majority of the potential electorate, and the clear majority of the voters.

To simplify something that’s obviously a lot more complex and multifactorial: in the short term, political parties can gain power by ignoring minority groups and pandering solely to the demographic that delivers the most votes. It’s why conservatives put so much effort into appealing to older, white, straight, people: the turnout among other groups means they can effectively be ignored. Improving turnout is therefore crucial if we want a fairer, more representative politics.

Farga isn’t optimistic about where the current divisive politics leads.

…beyond who wins and who loses, it’s about having elections that represent the will of the people, and I think when you don’t have that—no matter who wins or loses—in terms of which party, the outcomes are bad. I think that some of the divisiveness and divisions that you see right now—the polarization—is a product one of the parties… feeling that the strategy to win is basically to keep people from voting, that the only way they can win is by certain people not turning out, because that seems to be what was successful in 2016 and a few elections before that, like 2014 and maybe 2010.

That’s dangerous, because when we start talking about outcomes that are not seen as representative of all the people, and then one party disproportionately winning those outcomes, then the other party says, “Well, this is illegitimate.” And that’s where you see democratic breakdown.

“Extreme right wing fundamentalists with a history of abuse are being given the red carpet treatment at Holyrood”

Scotland’s only openly transgender elected official has resigned over “institutionalised transphobia” in the SNP. Dundee councillor Gregor Murray has repeatedly clashed with senior SNP figures including Joanna Cherry and Joan McAlpine.

Murray:

The SNP has a major institutional problem with transphobia, and is doing nothing to rectify this.

While they rightfully condemn Labour for anti-semitism, and the Tories for anti-Islamic sentiment, they remain silent on anti-trans sentiment at all levels within the party. Councillors, MSPs and MPs have been openly transphobic for months, and the party hierarchy has done nothing to stop them. Nicola Sturgeon’s words on these matters have been perfect – but we do not need any more words, we need action.

There are two main issues that Holyrood are considering right now that affect the trans community – the census, and the Gender Recognition Act (GRA).

“Both of these policies are going through committees with transphobic conveners. Extreme right wing fundamentalists with a history of abuse are being given the red carpet treatment at Holyrood in the party’s name.

SNP MSPs and MPs are attacking trans people, misgendering us and supporting further attacks.

It’s easy to read this as a someone with an axe to grind – Murray says they’ve faced “scurrilous” and “vexatious” allegations and that the party has effectively left them to face those allegations alone – but there does appear to be a problem with some MPs and MSPs. For example, Cherry and McAlpine have clearly allied themselves with some of the worst anti-trans organisations and sentiment.

I hope my MP is different. After writing to him about GRA reform and trans rights generally, I’ve been invited to come and meet him for a chat.

“A level sufficient to qualify as a vendetta”

One of the witnesses in Katherine O’Donnell’s employment tribunal against her former employer The Times  is Christine Burns MBE. Burns played a key part in the creation of UK equality legislation, and she’s been monitoring and reporting on the press coverage of trans issues for very many years. In her submission to the tribunal, she describes the Times’ recent coverage of trans issues.

During the course of 2016 the Times and Sunday Times featured approximately half a dozen trans-related stories, led by writers such as Rod Liddle. This did not appear at the time to be a departure from business as usual. Certainly, for Liddle, the opinions voiced about trans children and adolescents (as an example) seemed to be in keeping with his brand of polemic. The level of coverage in the whole year did not raise eyebrows, except in exasperation at the one-sidedness.

That pattern changed markedly in 2017, however — and it changed uniquely for the Times.

Burns describes how the Times and Sunday Times coverage of trans issues went into overdrive, essentially demonising trans people at every opportunity.

This wasn’t business as usual. It hadn’t happened in the run-up to the introduction of the Gender Recognition Bill in 2004, or of the Equality Act in 2010. The recent focus on and demonisation of trans people appears to be a deliberate change in editorial strategy.

As Burns also points out, “the other notable factor about this tsunami of negative coverage, beginning in 2017, was the degree to which editorial standards appeared to be abandoned.”

I’m not a news journalist, but I when I wrote tech news it was drilled into me that a single-source story wasn’t good enough; “person claims thing” is not news until it’s been fact-checked and experts consulted.

Many of the people writing for these newspapers are members of the National Union of Journalists, whose code of conduct compels journalists to “strive to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair” and “differentiates between fact and opinion.” It also says that a journalist “produces no material likely to lead to hatred or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age, gender, race, colour, creed, legal status, disability, marital status, or sexual orientation.”

Burns agues that the two papers appeared to decide that editorial standards, that the basic journalistic principles outlined in the NUJ code of conduct, no longer applied if the stories were about trans people. The views of failed sculptors were prized above those of experts. Baseless claims were printed without fact-checking, and often rescinded after intervention by Ofcom. Anti-semitic tropes of child sacrifice and sinister Jewish lobbies made it into print.

The two titles were standing up their pieces with largely one-sided opinion from personalities with no genuine qualifications in the subject matter and an axe to grind. By comparison, clinical or legal experts in the subject matter did not feature highly and trans views appeared to be treated as suspect, driven by (hinted) ulterior motives and fit for condemnation. The paper’s line of topics seemed to reflect the talking points of a small cohort of commentators who had appeared as if from nowhere to be interviewed as authorities on a regular basis. Trans people and the charities working in this area were presented as ‘powerful’ (the implication being ‘too powerful’). Conspiracy theories about the involvement of jewish billionaires and ‘big pharma’ were aired without challenge.

…What shocked trans observers in 2017 was that editorial standards appeared to have been suspended in this sphere. This is underlined when the basis for many stories was later established to be false. False interpretation of statistics about trans prisoners and offending. Unbalanced reporting of the nature of the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act, presenting only a one-sided pejorative view of the implications. False insinuation about the leadership of the trans charity Mermaids — even after the Heritage Lottery Fund had reexamined plans to award a grant to them in 2018.

The tribunal continues.

On women’s rights, follow the money

Writer Erynn Brook has posted an important thread on Twitter that begins with a simple question: why does she, a Canadian woman, care so much about abortion law in the US? The answer isn’t just that it’s a moral position, that if you care about women’s rights you should care about women’s rights everywhere. It’s that the same people – and their finances – turn up in other countries too.

When Brook encountered anti-abortion protesters in Canada, she was struck not just by the callousness of the protesters but by their expensively produced, professionally designed materials. When Brook’s photo was used by the protesters online she discovered that the protesters were “a company. Like a real company with directors and managers and a lawyer on retainer.”

Protest groups generally aren’t serious businesses too, so Brook investigated. What she found was effectively a PR company supporting anti-abortion protesters, and that company had deep pockets. As she dug further she discovered the company’s links with a prominent anti-abortion group founded by a US activist, and that group’s links with anti-abortion campaigns overseas. Ireland is a notable example.

Brook:

This isn’t an America issue. It’s a global issue, and the US is a megaphone. Not just that, they have actual companies, representatives and campaigns running in other countries promoting their propaganda.

What you’re seeing on the streets and online isn’t a spontaneous protest. It’s a PR campaign.

The funding is opaque, deliberately so, and in many cases groups use crowdfunding to disguise the source of their income.

The same thing happens here in the UK with various groups raising suspiciously large amounts of money incredibly quickly, the timestamps and amounts of the donations strongly indicating that most of the money is coming from the US. This opacity isn’t just about hiding donors’ identities. In many cases it’s also designed to evade electoral law, which limits political spending during elections and referendums.

Much of the social media activity and advertising against minority groups and/or progressive legislation is the work of bots (software) and sockpuppets (multiple fake accounts), much of which comes from internet addresses in the US: in the recent Irish abortion referendum, half of the online activity was by bots.

From anti-abortionists to anti-trans activists, climate change deniers to far-right rabble-rousers, dark money from the US has gone global – and money’s coming from the other direction too, with Russia deliberately trying to sow discord and division in the West. It too runs bot networks, sock puppets and fake news factories, boosting the far right and activists working to restrict the human rights of women and minorities.

The issues may differ but the story’s the same: whether they’re outside family planning clinics or primary schools, the protesters are pawns in a global game.

“A virus has spread, using technology to systematically tear at the social fabric”

Danah Boyd recently gave a talk at the Digital Public Library of America conference. It’s chilling stuff and chimes with my own thoughts about the internet: what we once thought would be a powerful, enlightening force for good has been weaponised and by people who want to tear our world apart.

What’s at stake right now is not simply about hate speech vs. free speech or the role of state-sponsored bots in political activity. It’s much more basic. It’s about purposefully and intentionally seeding doubt to fragment society.

This is something we see again and again in everything from climate change and vaccination to whether minorities should be granted human rights.

The agendas differ: sometimes it’s corporations trying to undermine legislation that might affect their profitability; sometimes it’s religious fundamentalists; sometimes it’s racists; sometimes it’s disaster capitalists.

But what these various bad actors have in common is their attempts to create an “other side” when there is no other side, a “debate” when the facts are unequivocal. They do this not because there’s uncertainty, disagreement or division, but because they want to create uncertainty and disagreement and division. They want people to disbelieve the facts, disbelieve the scientific consensus, disbelieve the evidence of their own eyes.

This line jumped out at me.

Journalists often get caught up in telling “both sides,” but the creation of sides is a political project.

“I didn’t notice” doesn’t mean “it didn’t happen”.

In Scotland, one of the most pernicious bits of anti-trans bullshit is the claim that gender recognition reform is a sudden development, something the Scottish Government is doing in secret and trying to rush through so that women’s groups can’t object.

Not only does that overlook the extensive, well publicised public consultation on gender recognition that ran from November 2017 to March 2018, that received formal submissions from all the key women’s groups in Scotland and whose responses were overwhelmingly in favour of reform. It also ignores the fact that gender recognition reform was a manifesto commitment of every major Scottish political party in 2016.

Here, courtesy of @scottishtrans, is what the parties had to say in their 2016 manifestos.

The SNP: “We will review and reform gender recognition law, so it’s in line with international best practice.” International best practice means self-certification.

Scottish Labour would “provide legal recognition for people who do not identify as men or women and remove the psychiatric diagnosis…Scotland’s young people…would be entitled to do so from the age of 16”.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats would bring gender recognition “into line with international good practice…including consideration of the medical requirements placed on applicants, and recognise the gender identity of nonbinary people.”

The Scottish Greens: “We will back the campaign to reform gender recognition law in line with international best practice.”

And the Scottish Conservatives: “areas that we believe require review are…the Gender Recognition Act.”

Just because some anti-trans activists didn’t notice – a claim I doubt given the formal submissions by various anti-trans and religious groups during the 2017 consultation, all of whom made their supporters very much aware of the issue – doesn’t mean it was a secret.

The reason gender recognition reform didn’t hit the headlines back in 2016 is because it was, and is, a slight reduction in bureaucracy that is of no relevance to the vast majority of people.

“We are now living through the biggest anti-trans backlash since the 1970s.”

I’m not the only one to notice the growing links between anti-trans groups, religious extremists and reactionary conservatives. Writing in Jezebel, Esther Wang explores “The Unholy Alliance of Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists and the Right Wing.”

In a sign of how their thinking mirrors one another, it can be remarkably difficult to distinguish between the talking points of the Christian right and the language of trans-exclusionary radical feminists.

As the piece points out, it’s more than just language. Organisations such as the Hands Across The Aisle foundation exist specifically to bring anti-trans activists and evangelicals together. Their members – previously listed on their website but now deleted – include Transgender Trend, one of the most visible and vocal anti-trans groups in the UK, as well as prominent UK feminists.

As I’ve noted before, most of the media panics over trans people follow a script set out by US evangelicals in 2017 that urged activists to:

Explain that gender identity rights only come at the expense of others: women, sexual assault survivors, female athletes forced to compete against men and boys, ethnic minorities who culturally value modesty, economically challenged children who face many barriers to educational success and don’t need another level of chaos in their lives, children with anxiety disorders and the list goes on and on and on.

This activism leads to attacks not just on trans people, but attacks on legislation designed to help women and minorities.

Walsh describes the anti-trans activists’ opposition to the US Equality Act, where angry women have been useful idiots for the republicans who want to discriminate against all LGBT people and who have learned to couch their bigotry in faux-feminist concerns.

In their opposition, they have aligned with conservative, largely Christian rightwing activists and elected officials, who have their separate, reactionary reasons for wanting to maintain the notion that there is a strict dividing line between man and woman and who have, similarly, reframed the debate about trans rights as one about “safety for women and girls.”

None of this is new, but it’s getting more dangerous.

As Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said to Walsh:

“I don’t understand how you can hate so much that you go out of your way to sell your soul to politicians and extremist organizations who have fought women’s rights and women’s welfare every step of the way. It’s really astounding and sad and pathetic.”