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LGBTQ Policy Journal

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

Is the Transgender Rights Movement Being Harmed by Facebook’s Actions as a Neoliberal Machine?

At the time of this writing, The Danish Girl was in theaters and was engendering a great deal of conversation. This is but one example of the recent uptick in popular culture references to transgender issues. Other examples include Laverne Cox’s character on Orange is the New Black, Jeffrey Tambor’s role in Transparent, and the rise of reality television shows such as Becoming Us, I am Jazz, and I am Cait. This trend has also manifested itself on perhaps the most influential cultural entity of the modern era: Facebook. We are interested in examining how Facebook works for and against the transgender movement.

When Facebook offered custom gender options they brought much needed visibility to the trans community. When Facebook deleted accounts of trans people and drag queens because they were not under the people’s legal names, they harmed the trans community. This harm must be examined in the context of the trans movement. While Facebook did something egregious – asking people of gender difference to out and dead name themselves – they also provided an opportunity to bring an under discussed issue to an international media stage. People stopped and listened to the importance of recognizing chosen names when Facebook had to stop and listen

But Facebook is more than its policies and procedures. Facebook is the day-to-day interactions and posts of the millions of users. Driven by likes and shares, Facebook operates in a world of commodification and popularity. For the trans movement, is Facebook a helpful or harmful platform for advancing trans visibility?

As a trans man and an educator, Brandon uses Facebook to share and learn about trans news. Recently, someone Brandon went to college with 20 years ago, who is now a high school teacher, reached out to him through Facebook and asked for his help with one of her students. Her student had just begun identifying as male and was struggling with explaining his trans identity to other students, his parents, and his teachers. She wanted to be supportive, and knew from Brandon’s Facebook posts that he cared about trans issues and had transitioned since college. Facebook enabled this connection and helped a young trans student.

But Facebook is ripe with the word “transgendered,” a term which implies that this is something that happens to a person rather than an identity. Another example of this can be seen in the historic use of the term “colored” to refer to people of color. Facebook is also ripe with negativity about the trans community and experience.

Recently, Facebook became a place to share news about presidential candidates’ opinions about transgender issues. While both parties have talked about LGBT concerns, the rampant sharing and reiterations of negative opinions, such as those from Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, have spread like wildfire. While the trans community needs visibility, this type of negative input harms the movement.

Does increased trans visibility on social media encourage the commodification of the identity? Does Ted Cruz misidentify someone as trans because it is a popular topic? Does Ben Carson call it a thing and push it to the side because it is a sensation? Has Facebook popularized transgender identity so much that the trans movement has lost ground in furthering trans rights?

We view the increased trans visibility on social media platforms through the lens of neoliberalism as public pedagogy. Public pedagogy is about learning that occurs outside educational institutions —in popular culture, the Internet, museums, parks and other civic spaces, commercial spaces and social movements. Neoliberalism, a subcategory of dominant cultural discourse, refers to the reproduction of identities and practices.

One of the primary ways Facebook may be harming the trans community is through what we call “extremification.” Extremification refers to the phenomenon where Facebook users not only take sides on issues, but also tend towards extreme positions. It occurs, for example, when someone posts a meme saying “Meat is murder,” or “Free people own guns. Slaves don’t.” The posters ignore the nuances and exceptions that exist in issues like animal rights and gun control and take a stance of no-compromise. You are a vegetarian or a cold-blooded killer. You are a gun owner or a slave.

This extremification happens in transgender issues. Take, for instance, the recent meme that showed a photo of Caitlyn Jenner next to one of an injured veteran. The text above Ms. Jenner reads, “This is NOT a hero…” and above the veteran, “…THIS is.” Viewers are being asked to eschew the notion that two different individuals could be heroes at the same time, but for different reasons. On a planet composed of over seven billion souls, denying the existence of “co-heroism” is extreme indeed.

Extremification also manifests in the transgender experiences that are made famous on Facebook. Most transgender individuals who appear in Facebook posts are outliers – celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox and Jazz Jennings – whose lifestyles and privilege are far from the community’s norm. The extreme nature of their stories may be why they are prominently featured in the first place. These trans women, with their passing privileges, their adherence to the ideal of feminine beauty and their positions in places of cultural influence are featured because they are not the norm, and this uniqueness makes their stories more compelling.

So, how does Facebook encourage such extremification? Richard Freishtat argues that Facebook “articulates a paradigm of thought that positions choices as an either/or instead of potential both/and possibilities,” (2010, p. 205). Viewers are exhorted to pick a side, even when two separate, mutually exclusive camps do not exist. But why must the chosen sides represent extreme points of view? The answer may lie in the currency of Facebook: the like.

With over two million advertisers and billions of dollars in annual revenue, Facebook has become an advertising giant. Facebook’s popularity algorithm ensures that highly liked pages are more likely to appear on user’s newsfeeds, increasing exposure and creating revenue for advertisers. According to Consumer Affairs, profit-generating techniques, such as “like farming” and “response farming” are common occurrences. Like farming and response farming are techniques that encourage users to react to posts (i.e. liking or commenting) in order to increase the post’s exposure to wider audiences.

Garnering likes and increasing exposure of advertising content allows advertisers opportunities to access and sell user information and/or expose users to viruses and malware. In order to earn this “like” currency, advertisers offer prizes or appeal to emotion. The “like” currency exchange not only filters the content we see and influences what we buy; it influences how we feel. Either/or, emotionally charged posts are sellable and we pay for their increased distribution with “likes.”

In this social media world of commodification and popularity algorithms, users are subject to manipulations: highly curated information and consumer and emotional influence. Facebook is a platform on which the power of advertisers and the “like” currency create a space where emotional manipulation, including extremification, is pervasive.  Extremification leads to the marginalized transgender community being represented by a few celebrity faces that are far from the norm, and the vocalization and mass exposure of hateful and ignorant opinions about transgender people.  Facebook is a neoliberal machine, and its workings are inflicting suffering on the transgender movement.