Sorry Bigots, Your Facebook Memes Are Wrong

Anti-trans, Target-boycotting memes are all over social media. And they’re all fake.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

If you see a viral anti-transgender post circulating on Facebook, chances are it’s fake.

The good folks at the myth-busting website Snopes have been working overtime during the American Family Association’s boycott of Target to disprove stories and memes tied to the retail giant’s policy of allowing transgender people to use the restroom that matches their gender identity.

Was the official Target Facebook account rude to a boycotter? No, that was a fake customer service account. Is Target installing urinals in women’s restrooms? No, and an out-of-context photo of two urinals in a Target bathroom proves nothing of the sort. Was a transgender woman arrested for photographing minors in a women’s restroom at a Dallas Target? Absolutely not. That story was completely fabricated on a fake news website that postures as a legitimate local media outlet.

But even though these posts have been thoroughly debunked, that hasn’t stopped them from circulating as fact among the hundreds of thousands of customers who say they have sworn off the nation’s No. 2 retail chain.

The stubborn persistence of the bathroom myth on Facebook reveals a sad truth about the campaign to kick transgender people out of public restrooms: If a real threat can’t be found, it must be fabricated. And the only people interested in making up a threat are either bigots or opportunists.

Take the fake “KRBC News” story about the nonexistent picture-snapping, privacy-invading transgender woman. It only takes a few seconds to expose the story as a fraud. If you click the “About Us” button at the top of the page, the description declares that they post “nothing but pure horse shit.”

“This should go without saying, but everything on this website is purely for entertainment purposes,” the webmasters write. “We are in no way affiliated, or trying to look like we are affiliated with any local news station.”

But “KRBC News” is indeed designed to look like actual content from a local station and, as Snopes’ Dan Evons pointed out, posting a fake, fear-mongering, anti-transgender news story “brings them clicks, and by extension, advertising money.” As of this writing, it has been shared over 13,000 times on Facebook. And even though it was exposed two days ago, Facebook users are still citing it as proof that Target is going to get “sued out of existence” and, ironically, that “the claims of the Left are lies.”

To be absolutely clear, neither transgender people nor the laws protecting their rights present a danger in the bathroom. There are no reported instances of a transgender person harassing or assaulting a non-transgender person in a bathroom.

Anyone concerned that legislation explicitly protecting transgender people will encourage bathroom predators dressed as women to enter the ladies’ room has nothing to worry about. Over 200 cities and counties have such ordinances and none have had this problem.

Even if non-transgender male offenders do go through the extra trouble to as women, they can be prosecuted under existing privacy and “peeping Tom laws,” as The Daily Beast reported.

But even though all of these reassuring facts are verifiable with a simple Google search, many people still believe that pro-LGBT legislation will make bathrooms less safe. A recent poll of North Carolina voters found that most of them opposed the sweeping new anti-LGBT law but 56 percent still believed “that allowing a transgender individual to use the public restroom of their choice does pose a security risk for women and children.”

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This seemingly unkillable myth can be blamed on a lot of factors: age-old media representations of transgender people as deranged killers, misleading Fox News reporting on trans issues, or, as BuzzFeed’s Dominic Holden suggested, a failure on the part of mainstream LGBT rights groups like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) to successfully defuse the bathroom panic before it could gain traction.

But above all, it is Facebook where the bathroom myth lives and where it is spread. For example, the now-infamous photo of urinals supposedly being installed in a Target women’s room has accrued over 15,000 shares and counting. It even made an appearance on former congressman Allen West’s website.

The original poster is not exactly a credible source: She did not identify the exact store, referred to penises as “giblets,” and called the urinals evidence of a “war on women.” Her public Facebook posts also contain another hoax news story. But because of the viral spread of her single photograph, Target has since had to publicly confirm that it is “100% untrue” that urinals will be installed in the women’s restroom.

Research about Americans’ online habits could help explain why Facebook is the medium of choice for anti-transgender false alarms.

For one, more Americans are getting their news on Facebook than ever before. According to Pew Research Center data, 63 percent reported getting news from Facebook in 2015, up from 47 percent just two years before. This growth is occurring across all age groups, which means that generations who are less accepting of LGBT people are not being aged off the platform; instead, they’re opting in.

Pew research has also shown that Baby Boomers are most likely to almost always see political content on Facebook that aligns with their views whereas Gen Xers and Millennials see more posts with which they disagree. Older generations of Americans are also more likely to oppose transgender bathroom access.

Combined, these trends can create something of a digital vacuum: Older Internet users can circulate fake transphobic posts and pictures with fewer dissenters in their peer group to point out the fraud.

Hoaxes like the KRBC news story don’t have to circulate unchecked. In 2014, Facebook tested out a “satire” tag designed to flag content from Clickhole and the Onion that could just as easily be applied to more pernicious fake news websites. As Caitlin Dewey wrote for The Washington Post, “Facebook, then, has essentially just proffered its own quick fix: If you don’t want people to fall for fake news, clearly mark it—and on the platform where people encounter fake news most.”

Two years later, the KRBC news story looks just like any other local news story when shared on the Facebook platform, where it is continuing to spread unchecked, providing nightmare fuel for Target boycotters. It is up to online mythbusters, it seems, to put the transgender bathroom panic to bed once and for all.