If you’ve been watching the “draconian” Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill make its way through parliament over the past month, you’re likely to have heard about a proposed amendment – made by the Conservative peer David Maclean on 10 January – to move incarcerated trans women into “separate, specialised units”, in order to prevent cis female prisoners from being subjected to “violence” and “rape”. In the days leading up to this amendment’s proposal, a frenzied campaign began on social media in support of it, with the hashtag #KeepPrisonsSingleSex. It trended on Twitter for days and received tens of thousands of posts, some of which were read out in the House of Lords by Claire Fox, who said the campaign had been bolstered by a study published in the Times headlined “Trans prisoners ‘switch gender again’ once freed from women’s units”.
The amendment was struck down in the House of Lords, with the opposition calling it “cruel”, “dangerous”, and misrepresenting the harsh reality that trans prisoners face. But the hashtag has clearly cut through: within days of the proposal, most mainstream publications – including the New Statesman – had run pieces supporting the campaign, no doubt in part because editors saw #KeepPrisonsSingleSex trending daily, picking up lots of clicks and views. By the end of the week, it looked like a major debate, with the public split evenly between those for and against.
This is why a new report from Logically – one of the world’s largest fact-checkers, which uses artificial intelligence to debunk disinformation online – may come as a shock to gender critics. It reveals that support for the #KeepPrisonsSingleSex campaign was dramatically inflated and much smaller than numbers initially conveyed, with the hashtag having been primarily driven by a large network of bots. After tracking thousands of tweets over several days, Logically found that the hashtag was part of a “social media manipulation campaign”, whereby a group of anonymous accounts amplified the hashtag, constantly tweeting it themselves and retweeting each other, before disappearing after a few days. The tweets read out by Fox in the House of Lords might have been genuine, but many had been amplified by the very bot accounts Logically identified.
The report also found that the piece in the Times had significantly misrepresented the study it was based on – “cherry-picking negative experiences”, despite most of the evidence being positive views of trans prisoners.
“When a trans person is incarcerated, the prison services individually assess each case to determine whether other prisoners or the transgender prisoner themself would be safe,” the Logically report concluded. “It is not true that a trans prisoner, solely based on self-ID, would be able to be homed in a prison that didn’t match their birth sex. The Times’s reporting, in conjunction with the reach the manipulated hashtag gave it, could very easily mislead an uninformed reader into thinking that it was.”
The Logically report is significant for several reasons. First, it shows the sinister influence social media can have on both our politicians and our discourse. This isn’t just a matter of influencing the culture – this inflated hashtag (and the misleading information associated with it) could have helped make a deadly idea into law. But the report also points to something many of us have sensed for some time: that, while popular with a certain class of well-connected media figures and politicians, the popularity of gender critical-feminism is much more niche than its greatest supporters like to claim.
The Logically revelations nod to a growing imbalance in how support for trans rights in the UK has been portrayed. Most Britons do not harbour anti-trans views – surveys have shown for years that people in the UK are largely supportive of trans rights. And yet, for those who missed those surveys, this fact may come as a surprise. When glancing at British newspapers, the majority of writing about trans people is written from the perspective of cis gender-critical feminists, who support causes such as #KeepPrisonsSingleSex. The framing of these views as “feminist” has been a particular fascination in other parts of the world, such as the United States, where anti-trans rhetoric is almost solely championed by religious conservatives on the hard-right wing of the Republican Party.
Gender-critical feminists – and the over-amplification of their views – paint a picture where their brand of feminism is the dominant approach to trans rights. But this is out of sync with reality and to suggest otherwise – such as in the case of the #KeepPrisonsSingleSex campaign – is often plain misinformation. On the surface, this gender-critical cause appeared to be backed by studies, stats and a good portion of the public; the truth was the number of supporters it had was wildly exaggerated. The knock-on effect is that, despite its relative nicheness and harmful, false basis, campaigns such as these get mainstream attention and create the impression that they are rooted in both popularity and fact.
Logically concluded that, despite uncovering the bot network inflating the popularity of #KeepPrisonsSingleSex, it isn’t sure who was behind it, or why these people did what they did. What we do know is that trans people – and, in particular, trans women – have long been a disproportionate obsession of the UK media. And this report is one case of many showing just how disproportionate that obsession is.