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‘Gayrope’: This is how Russia uses disinformation against the LGBTQ+ community to attack democracies

An EU report has analyzed 31 cases of false content about sexual diversity, more than half of which are of Russian origin

Movimiento LGTBI Rusia
Officers block the St. Petersburg Gay Pride Parade, in August 2019.Anton Vaganov (Reuters)

Misinformation has been worrying intellectuals and governments for decades. In 1951, the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, in The Origins of Totalitarianism: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.” The immediacy made possible by social media has only increased fear about the spread and consequences of this false content.

In December 2020, Vice-President of the European Commission Josep Borrell published an article through the European External Action Service (EEAS). In the document, he warned about the dangers of disinformation during the Covid-19 pandemic, pointing out the Russian government as one of the main parties responsible for foreign interference: “We’re not, obviously, facing a new phenomenon. However, with the possibilities offered by the internet, misinformation now spreads more quickly than ever, reaching citizens’ homes directly every day.”

Recently, the EEAS has published yet another report, in which it points the finger at the Russian government for being key to spreading disinformation regarding the LGBTQ+ community. At the presentation of the findings in Brussels this past October 23, Lutz Güllner — director of strategic communications and information analysis for the EEAS — clarified the strategy behind this harmful content. “There’s foreign interference that not only seeks to transport disinformation… there’s always an agenda behind it, amplifying certain voices. It’s an attack on our values,” he emphasized.

According to the report, the political actors involved aim to “destabilize liberal democracies and gain support for the conservative project defended by the Kremlin.” The study has chosen 31 cases shared in 15 languages, both EU languages (German, Czech, Slovak, English, Finnish, French, Italian, Polish and Portuguese) and non-EU languages (Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Serbian, Somali and Ukrainian). Beatriz Marín — a member of Güllner’s division at the EEAS — explained the selection of the publications: “We wanted to take a manageable and representative sample to be able to analyze [this phenomenon]. We’ve worked with the country delegations to understand the context in which [the content circulates].”

The report indicates that 55% of the cases analyzed involve content of Russian origin. 12 of the 31 cases are directly attributed to the Kremlin. “There were channels attributed to the Russian government and unattributed channels… but they frequently operate together with channels linked to the Kremlin,” sources specify. Among the cases related to Moscow is a video game from the Russian website SouthFront, which consists of shooting at different helmets that appear on the sides of the screen. They bear the flags of NATO, the Nazis, Ukraine… and even the rainbow flag. “The website has been attributed to the Russian secret services,” EU sources clarify.

The main distribution platforms for this content were Telegram (46%), websites (20%) and Twitter (19%). 43% of all cases were concentrated immediately before, after or during specific celebrations, such as Gay Pride month. Up to 80% attacked Ukrainian and German community institutions, sports organizations such as the International Olympic Committee and NATO. Some of the most common messages made reference to the term Gayrope (a play on the words “gay” and “Europe”), the preservation of the nuclear family, traditional values, gender ideology and the idea that LGBTQ+ people are a social disease.

Among the tactics used to give lies the appearance of truth, the most common is the imitation of legitimate publications, or the creation of content that resembles the visual style of materials put out by official organizations. One such case is that of a job offer from a Ukrainian NGO seeking a “tolerance tutor” for the anti-Russian frontlines. Another online publication mimics the cover of a German satirical magazine, in which members of the LGBTQ+ collective (drawn as people with beards and large breasts) destroy the Olympic rings. There’s also a video that purports to be from Euronews, announcing how the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Paris want to be openly LGTBQ, as well as a fake report about a book that is allegedly being distributed in Germany to Ukrainian refugees to indoctrinate them about diversity.

The anti-LGBTQ+ content also includes a pamphlet inviting gay and transgender people to join the Russian Armed Forces, or an advertisement for MOCAF beer (of French origin) in Somalia, with an image of two men kissing. The tweet sharing the false advertising image reads: “MOCAF has launched a new advertising campaign to promote European values. Let them do it in France — Africa has different values.”

The specific cases of Ukraine and Georgia

A report by the Ukrainian NGO Detector Media agrees with the findings of the EEAS. The organization’s research team has studied 33,200 posts on Facebook, YouTube, Telegram and Twitter, dated between March 23 and July 23 of 2023. This work — entitled Homophobia on Social Media: Straddling Russian Propaganda and Ukrainian Discourse on Values — concludes that the Russian government tries to present itself as the only guarantor of traditional values and frequently uses terms such as “sodomite,” “sin,” or “demonizer” to refer to LGBTQ+ people. In this report, three main sources of content propagation were detected: Russia, Ukrainian religious groups and the extreme-right. “The [latter groups],” says Lesia Bidochko, deputy director of the Detector Media research center, “even claim that the LGBTQ+ community is more dangerous than the Russians.” Bidochko — who also attended the presentation of the report in Brussels — says that, like the EEAS study, they’ve also found false narratives that claim that there are battalions of Ukrainian homosexuals who are recruited in gay bars.

An investigation by the Georgian Media Development Foundation (MDF) reaches similar conclusions. Pro-Kremlin far-right groups — the sources that most frequently promote these publications — claim that integration into Europe and the assimilation of Western values endanger Georgia’s conservative identity. They affirm that Russia tries to protect this identity by restricting homosexuality. Between January 1 and May 31, the MDF — which also documents attacks on feminism — analyzed 1,163 homophobic messages, 839 of which were broadcast in the traditional media and 324 on social media. One of the main messages that is repeated is how any representation of the LGBTQ+ community in any form — whether it be a protest, a film, or a television program — is actually aggressive propaganda meant to promote European values.

Direct and indirect consequences

Although the ultimate objective of disinformation is to destabilize European democracies (beyond the LGBTQ+ community itself), these messages have caused direct attacks on LGBTQ+ people. Magdalena Wilczynska — an expert in disinformation at Techsoup Poland, who participated in the presentation in Brussels — indicates that the inclusion of the LGTBQ issue in the 2019 Polish electoral campaign led to the throwing of stones during the Pride Parade. She refers to a march in the city of Bialystok, which celebrated Pride for the first time: the attendees were subsequently attacked.

Ana Subelian — co-director of Tbilisi Pride (Georgia), who was also present in Brussels — points out that far-right groups boycotted the celebration of the Pride March in 2021. Stella Ronner-Grubacic — the ambassador for gender and diversity at the EEAS — blames these kinds of online messages for the legislation against homosexuality that was passed in Uganda. “Disinformation worked there,” she points out.

However, this misinformation hasn’t always worked. A survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology shows that while 60.2% of Ukrainians had a negative view towards members of the LGBTQ+ community in 2016, this percentage fell to 20% by 2022. In January 2023, 58% of Ukrainians were very favorable or partially favorable to LGBTQ+ people enjoying the same rights as the rest of the population, with 20% completely against this.

Bidochko points to the Russian invasion and its propaganda against the LGBTQ+ collective as responsible for this change, along with other factors that have reduced intolerance. “There was an unprecedented level of support for Pride this year. Between May and June [of this year], many [Ukrainian] companies showed solidarity, such as the mobile operator Kyivstar, the pharmaceutical company Apteka Dobrogo Dnya and the home appliance and electronics chain Comfy. The national postal service — Ukrposhta — also expressed its support publicly, and the Ukrainian ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs changed their social media logos to the rainbow flag.” Furthermore, Ukrainian media has covered the participation of LGBTQ+ people on the battlefield with a positive lens, which has helped improve the public perception of the community.

The most notable initiative is one that occurred in March 2023, when parliamentarian Inna Sovsun from the liberal Voice party — along with 17 parliamentarians from both Voice and the Servant of the People party (Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s party) — presented the draft law No. 9103, to allow for civil unions in Ukraine for same-sex couples. “[Those within] civil unions would receive the same rights as immediate family members, such as property ownership, inheritance and social protection,” Bidochko explains. “However, they wouldn’t be able to adopt or gain custody of their partner’s children.”

Legislation, the most forceful response

The EEAS report proposes a multitude of responses to disinformation against the LGBTQ+ community, such as providing reliable and legitimate information about the community, supporting campaigns for LGBTQ+ rights alongside civil society experts, researching and reporting more on international tools that monitor misinformation, or improving content moderation on social media.

During the presentation of the EEAS report in Brussels, on the subject of content moderation, Eleonora Esposito — from the EU’s Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology — highlighted the implementation of the Digital Services Law (DSA) in November 2022. This EU-wide legislation imposes measures on social media, such as establishing tools for content moderation and implementing greater transparency regarding algorithms and the processing of personal data. “With the DSA, we have new regulatory capabilities to check that platforms are complying with the rules. Changes are beginning to occur, X now puts context on the tweets.”

However, Kim van Sparrentak — a member of the European Parliament for the Netherlands and co-president of the LGBTQ+ intergroup — is more skeptical than Esposito. “The DSA isn’t enough. Lots of content isn’t illegal… we cannot wait for social media companies to act when the damage has already been done. We need to create a safe space, as there’s been an increase in offline violence due to [online] disinformation. If you search the word ‘trans’ on X (formerly known as Twitter), a lot of disinformation and hatred comes out. The same narrative is used as with immigrants: they’re coming to take something from you, if LGBTQ+ people want more rights, they’re going to take something from you. There must be financing and capacity to act against whoever is responsible for this,” she affirms.

Joel Bedos is the director of Campaign against Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI). He advocates for maintaining a constant discourse in response to disinformation. “In the end, the lie is [revealed] and it turns against these actors, as happened to Jair Bolsonaro [in Brazil],” he explains. Kate Hugendubel — from the LGBTQ+ rights organization ILGA Europe — advocates investing in activists, so that they can continue their work. She also highlights the importance of legislation for normalization. “In Scotland, Finland and Spain, [laws to protect trans people] were passed despite the political noise… that’s the strongest response that can be given.”

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