Videos of attacks on transgender people are being uploaded to social media sites like YouTube for entertainment, and viewed tens of millions of times, according to a report published Tuesday.
Witness, a nonprofit organization that uses eyewitness videos to shed light on human rights abuses, compiled the report. Called Capturing Hate, it draws on videos uploaded to four social media sites: YouTube, World Star Hip Hop, Fly Height, and Live Leak. The report then analyzes ratings and comments, as well as how the videos are captured, titled and described. In total, Witness reviewed 329 videos of physical violence, which researchers found using two search phrases: "tranny fight" and "stud fight.”
The videos, often recorded by a bystander, include graphic footage of trans people being both verbally and physically attacked. But just as jarring are viewer comments.
"Am I the only one who feels physically sick when looking at trannys [sic]?," one commenter wrote under a video of a man fighting with a trans woman on a subway platform in New York City.
“LMFAO what did IT except coming over there talking smack and trying to push IT’s [sic] lifestyle on normal people," reads another comment under a video of a gender nonconforming person being attacked by a group outside a skate shop in Atlanta.
"These videos are hateful," the report concludes. "They are captured and shared with the singular objective of amusing viewers, driving traffic, and generating revenue for the ‘shock’ sites that host and promote them."
In total, the videos were viewed 89,233,760 times, shared 601,300 times, liked 554,143 times, and attracted 230,262 comments. Witness found that the videos overwhelmingly attracted negative comments, including transphobic language and people celebrating the violence portrayed.
"The most shocking was the vitriol in the comments," Karen Stevenson, co-author of Capturing Hate and Witness researcher, told me. "I expected the usual, but the incitements to violence and just the overwhelming negativity of the response to everyone in the videos was kind of staggering."
There are more disturbing statistics from the report: 39% of the videos on YouTube were categorized by the users who uploaded them as entertainment or comedy, and almost all—99%—of ratings on the videos were "likes.”
What’s more, the language used by attackers in the videos, as well as in the tags and descriptions, "contain transphobic language that suggests a rigid defense of a gender binary, especially the presumptive appearance, mannerisms, and dress associated with those roles," according to the report.
LGBTQ advocates say the videos show the outright hostility and violence that trans people in the U.S. face every day.
"In a lot of these cases, the intention behind posting the video is entertainment and that reality is tragic—that that is how some people are perceiving these videos and then using them, and then how other people are absorbing them," said Beverly Tillery, executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project (NYC AVP), an LGBTQ advocacy group that worked with Witness as an advisory partner on Capturing Hate
According to the report, anti-trans videos represent only a small percentage of all videos uploaded to YouTube, but other sites feature them far more prominently. Still, more than 60% of the videos researchers found were hosted on YouTube. "World Star Hip Hop and Fly Height are ‘shock’ sites that solicit and promote these videos to drive traffic and to monetize as part of their business models. And Live Leak [is] a video aggregator that promotes itself as a cutting-edge news outlet known for breaking particularly gruesome content (e.g., the execution of Saddam Hussein)," the report reads.
YouTube, World Star Hip Hop, and Fly Height did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the report and their removal policies on transphobic videos or comments.
Capturing Hate’s authors say they’ve talked with YouTube, the largest of the sites included in their research, about the damage such videos can cause and how to discourage transphobic behavior on the site. They say YouTube has been open to discussing how to better publicize and enforce its take-down policies, which don’t allow “content that promotes violence or hatred against individuals or groups based on certain attributes,” including gender identity.
One of the co-founders of LiveLeak, Hayden Hewitt, told me that he would consider having a specific take-down policy for the site "if [the site] experienced a huge problem with homophobia [and transphobia] beyond the depressingly predictable usual level among certain people."
LiveLeak has a policy against the use of racial slurs in comments and tags, though it doesn’t remove videos that contain racial slurs. The site hosted 66 of the 329 videos reviewed in Capturing Hate. Hewitt said LiveLeak hosts hundreds of thousands of videos in total.
He sees the videos on LiveLeak as a symptom of transphobic attitudes in society, and not a problem that’s perpetuated by the site itself.
"I do understand the report, and I do believe that if something is promoting hatred, then sharing sites should take some responsibility and try to do something about it," Hewitt told me. "But what we can’t do is become an easy fix for society on a larger scale. The report, whilst I don’t disagree with anything in there, it’s pointing at things that are actually symptoms rather than the cause."
For their part, World Star Hip Hop and Fly Height’s content policies deal with copyright infringement, but not potential hate speech.
For advocacy groups like the NYC AVP, anti-trans videos and comments shed light on society’s deeply ingrained transphobia and homophobia.
"We really feel like part of our work is cultural-change work that needs to happen,” NYC AVP executive director Tillery said, “so that people do not see these kinds of videos as entertainment, and so they understand these are real acts of violence and that real people are impacted, and that trans and gender nonconforming people are humanized.”
The impact of these videos on trans people's lives is clear, even beyond the obvious and immediate trauma of being physically and verbally attacked.
"My private life has been exposed to the world. I lost my job. I cannot go anywhere without the fear of being hurt again. I want to go in a hole and hide," Chrissy Polis, one trans survivor of an attack caught on video, told Capturing Hate’s authors.
So, can eyewitness videos of attacks like these raise awareness about the violence that trans people face, or bring their attackers to justice?
Pearl Love, a trans woman and activist in New York City, filmed one of the many times she's experienced hate violence in public, and uploaded it to Facebook in May.
Love told me she filmed the incident and uploaded it to Facebook because she'd seen so many of her trans friends be attacked but get no justice; this is partly because they didn't have any evidence or way to identify their attackers, she says.
"Everybody I know around me who’s transgender—we’ve had the same experience. That they got beat up badly on the subway," Love said. "What I feel is that they have no evidence; they couldn’t even find who did it. That’s the reason why I was thinking: If I don’t film, no one's going to believe what this woman did on the subway to me. That’s why I started recording."
The way the videos in Capturing Hate were uploaded and watched is completely different from the way Love and other trans people have used video-sharing sites to raise awareness of transphobia and tell their stories.
"We think that there are ethical and effective ways that these videos, though they are intended to cause harm, can be used for advocacy," the report reads.
"Balancing the tensions between re-victimization and exploitation, and the potent way video exposes abuse, is an ongoing challenge. But there is no doubting the singular impact of eyewitness video in exposing human-rights abuses and empowering marginalized communities."
Advocates say video-sharing platforms and social media are beginning to play an important role in empowering trans people to document harassment and hate violence. But, they note, a crucial part of the picture is spreading more positive images and stories of trans people's lives.
"The need is for as many kinds of media and social media outlets to really have spaces and ways for trans and gender nonconforming people to tell their own stories," NYC AVP executive director Tillery said. "To put out positive depictions of themselves and others.”