Children's hospitals targeted by anti-LGBTQ activists online The harassment campaigns are organized online, raising questions about what role social media platforms should play in preventing abuse.

Children's hospitals are the latest target of anti-LGBTQ harassment

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Hospitals and doctors around the country are facing harassment, even death threats over the medical care they offer to transgender kids. In many cases, they have been the subject of posts by a Twitter account called Libs of TikTok. Despite the threats and harassment, this account continues to post fresh material, which may tell us something about what major online platforms such as Twitter consider to be threatening behavior. NPR's Shannon Bond has been following this. Hey there.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: OK. Tell me a little bit more about this account, Libs of TikTok.

BOND: Yeah. So this is an account with 1.3 million Twitter followers, and it regularly reposts videos and social media posts from regular people, teachers, schools and institutions. And often, these are taken out of context and framed to fuel outrage and to cast LGBTQ people as pedophiles. And, you know, Mary Louise, this comes amid, you know, a broader rise in anti-LGBTQ sentiment on the right. And this account has become very influential. These videos it posts often end up on Fox News.

KELLY: And where do children's hospitals come into this picture?

BOND: Well, in the past few weeks, this account has been posting a lot about children's hospitals, as you said, that provide health care to transgender kids. And in some cases, it's made false claims, like that hospitals are performing gender-affirming hysterectomies on young children. And I want to stop here to emphasize that this is not true. The hospitals say they do not do these surgeries specifically on patients under the age of 18. But the hospitals say these posts have sparked this wave of harassment and threats. I spoke with Dr. Angela Kaed Goepferd, who runs the Gender Health program at Children's Minnesota in Minneapolis. That hospital has not been targeted, but they've been watching this all play out.

ANGELA KAED GOEPFERD: So I think the fact that it, you know, has - somewhere the message has gotten through that it's OK to attack physicians, pediatricians, children's hospitals in this way is just a really disturbing societal trend.

KELLY: And yet, Shannon, the attacks continue. This account continues to post. Is Twitter doing anything about this? Does Twitter consider this harassment?

BOND: I mean, it's kind of hard to tell, right? So Twitter, as well as Facebook and Instagram, where this account also posts - they all have rules against hate speech, harassment, including what's called brigading, where people coordinate to pile onto a target. The thing is the Libs of TikTok account isn't making direct threats itself, but these posts appear to be encouraging other people to do so. And we've seen other instances where this account has posted about Pride events, drag story hours of public libraries, and then right-wing extremist groups have shown up in those places. So this question, you know, for the platforms is, is Libs of TikTok responsible for any of this impact? Now, Twitter and Facebook wouldn't comment on the account, and I did reach out to the account owner for comment. She replied. She said she was open to an interview, but then she didn't respond when I tried to schedule it and didn't respond to any of my written questions.

KELLY: What sort of impact has this had on hospitals, on doctors who work there?

BOND: I mean, you can imagine it's been very difficult. This, of course, affects the safety of staff at hospitals. It's a resource drain to deal with these kinds of threats. And then there are wider ripple effects, right? I mean, there are impacts on patients who need this evidence-based medical care. And it affects other patients, too, if hospitals' communications or websites get overwhelmed because of the volume of threats that they're receiving. And so, you know, there's a lot to contend with here. Providers I spoke with say they're worried that there could be a chilling effect if transgender health care is even more stigmatized than it already is, that this could change how doctors practice. And then it could make it harder to get funding for research into the best care.

KELLY: OK. Thank you, Shannon.

BOND: Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: NPR's Shannon Bond.

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