In June 2018, my business partner and I decided to throw our first queer party in Zurich. We honestly didn’t know what we were doing but were tired of the scene and wanted to throw a party that we’d actually want to go to. With a fun marketing concept in hand and a tiny bar booked as a venue, I, as the marketer, set about trying to make the local queers turn up and turned to Facebook to advertise our event. With one targeted ad, I watched as interest in our party grew to about 150 people online. Imagine our surprise when over 200 queers descended on this tiny bar to come to our event on the night in question. The energy was electric, and we were a success and in part, we had Facebook to thank for it. Little did I know that what I once thought was the best thing about Facebook would be the very reason that I am recommending queer people to leave the platform for good.
How to target queers on Facebook
Creating a targeted ad on Facebook is incredibly simple. It also doesn’t cost very much, making it a fantastic advertising platform for small businesses trying to get off the ground. When you set up a target audience you can target people based on their location, gender, and age. Facebook does not capture sensitive data like sexual orientation explicitly. Still, as an advertiser, you can target queer people in a roundabout way by adding the “interests” criteria into the mix. Take the example of a queer party in Switzerland, assume that queer kids primarily live in the cities, so let’s choose to target this ad to people in Zurich, Basel, Luzern, Lausanne, Geneva, and Lugano. Let’s advertise to both men and women and as it is a nightclub event and assume the age range interested in this event is between 18-50 years of age. When it comes to interests, let’s choose “nightclubs”, “dancing”, and some interests that are specifically known to be for queer people. This combination will usually give back a target audience of about approximately 250,000 people. I can report that the system works. I’ve been running these events for 3 years now; I’ve seen boosted events grow, watched promoted ticket posts sell tickets, and always the right kind of people, the queers, our community, turn up to our parties.
Is Facebook all about small businesses?
So if the system works and has been good for me and my business to date, why do I believe queer people should leave Facebook?
LGBTQ+ people are a vulnerable and marginalised group and, even in most liberal societies, still, need safe spaces and protection.
We have seen tremendous progress and acceptance over the years, but at the same time, we know the pendulum can swing the other way at any time. Take the trans community; for example, 2020 is probably the year where they finally could see a lot of acceptance and positive representation and the community has never been more visible. Yet, it is also the worst year on record for transphobic violence. Facebook claims to be all about small businesses whenever they get challenged on their surveillance capitalist business model. Yet, as a small business owner, I’ve never really felt they had my or my community’s best interest at heart. Ever since Donald Trump was removed from social media, I have seen more and more reports in the media of social media censorship. Yet, the reality for queer people and queer people of colour, in particular, has been years of censorship on these platforms. I’ve witnessed it firsthand and watched as the algorithm got smarter at detecting queer bodies and expression and deeming them inappropriate content.
Queers have been censored on social media for years
Allow me to explain; we use photographs and footage from our parties to promote them on our various social media channels. Our events are all about freedom of expression and being your authentic queer self. Our guests always turn up dressed to impress, and this expression is usually about showing their queer bodies. To clarify, these pictures are not pornographic; they are our reality at queer clubs, they are our freedom, yet we are continually censored on most social media platforms when we show our truth. Our business has had pictures reported, taken down, accounts shadowbanned, and ads blocked. In some instances, it was fair (initially, I didn’t read the terms and conditions in much detail) and, in other situations, undeserved. At the time, I didn’t question it; however, Facebook was never there; there was no one to talk to when you disagree with their review process. I rarely was able to get a satisfying response from their customer service as I found I could never speak to someone directly with all complaints handled through the platform.
Is the algorithm racially biased?
Another thing that unnerves me is that since 2018 I’ve watched the algorithm get smarter, faster, and I have theorised that it may have some racial bias. The host of our party Kweer Ball is Tropikahl - a non-binary person of colour (they/them to most, she/her to her friends). We have featured her prominently in our promotional materials as the face of our party, and rightly so. Tropikahl is a performer, a voguer, a house mother as well as an outspoken advocate for progress and equity. She oozes sensuality when she dances on stage - this is undeniable, and it is electric. Gradually I noticed the footage of her used in video promotions continuously get flagged by Facebook as promoting “stripping”. It was subtle at first, sometimes an ad would be up for a couple of weeks before being flagged, but gradually the algorithm got smarter and would recognise and flag Tropikahl’s body as inappropriate within an hour of an ad going up. Always the same response would get me out of Facebook jail and allow my ad to get approved – remove Tropikahl and replace it with some other footage and I would do it, but I never felt very comfortable about it. I believe representation is important. There are not many visible people of colour in Zurich and rarely any as the host/face of an event the size of this party (we can have over 800 attendees on a good night). One incident in particular that cemented this for me was when a recent video ad got flagged again for stripping, where I was adamant it could not be her footage that caused this. I was convinced footage of a white burlesque performer drying her hair and throwing a towel in an on-stage performance was the culprit. Yet, upon removing this footage, I noticed the ad still wasn’t approved. It was only when I had removed Tropikahl, who was merely walking across the stage, that the video was let through. That more suspect footage of the white woman remained in the final approved ad. These issues aren’t isolated to our parties; Sergio, a queer party organiser from London, has had a very similar experience to mine:
“I’ve been banned on Facebook because of my party flyers, blocked on Instagram a few times also. I’ve paid about £5,000 to date on advertising costs and I am now banned for life with no access to my old advertising account” Sergio, a queer party organiser from London
Conclusion - fight for change or leave on mass?
If it is so easy for Facebook to police queer bodies and queer expression, one can’t help but wonder, why they cannot get a handle on some of the platform’s other problems? Fake news, hate speech, and extremist conspiracies that threaten established democracies, to name a few. It is reported that Facebook’s algorithms are eight times more likely to recommend fake news or an extremist group to its users. Why is it that these problems persist when you can visibly see the algorithms at work policing queer content? One can’t help but wonder if there is too much money in hate to walk away from it?
Fundamentally, this is my concern about Facebook right now; our business’s purpose is to create safe spaces and experiences for queer people. Yet we use a platform to advertise to them that I do not believe has queer people’s best interest in mind. A worse thought I have is what if it gets into the wrong hands, hands that want to do harm and damage to our community. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has shown us how easily Facebook can be weaponized; what if that weapon was used on queer people? So the question remains - should LGBTQ+ people get out of there before it is too late? All things said I do believe there is hope; I have seen our power as a community, when we come together and demand change, from Stonewall to protests for black lives. We are an immensely powerful group when we all come together to transform society. And if change doesn’t come, we then can decide together to leave, turn our back on Facebook and go somewhere where we are free to be our true and authentic queer selves – without data mining, without algorithms, and without censorship. That’s almost 300 million users (10% of 2.8 billion) walking away at once, and a huge impact on the company’s bottom line.
And there is unbelievable power in that thought.
This article is part of a wider series we are commissioning here at Kweer – stay tuned for the next entry in the series coming soon – “Why Queer people should leave Instagram.”