The online fight over Arkansas’ anti-Trans law is revealing Republicans’ new red meat issue

Trans activists and allies are organizing online to stop a new wave of hate-driven legislation

Slowly taking over Fox News and right wing media over the past few weeks has been the scapegoating of transgender Americans (and children) by Republicans across the country. Those stories and rhetoric have turned to action, with Republicans in statehouses from Arkansas to Montana attempting to pass transphobic legislation. This issue has come to a head in Arkansas - where the Republican supermajority in the state legislature just overturned the *Republican* governor’s veto of HB 1570, a law that now makes healthcare for trans kids illegal.

While forces on the Right have dominated this debate on Fox and elsewhere, progressive groups from civil liberties nonprofits to LGBTQ advocacy organizations have fought back online with ad campaigns on Facebook and influencer organizing on Instagram. Here’s a recap of how it’s played out in advertising and in social media feeds over the past few weeks.

Digital advertising for and against recent transphobic legislation 

There are many, many trans-allied groups in this fight, but the ACLU and Human Rights Campaign have been without a doubt the biggest spenders on digital advertising advocating against transphobic legislation. The ACLU alone has spent $491,699 on Facebook ads alone this year, and the Human Rights Campaign has spent $127,844 on the platform. 

The two groups have a lot of other irons in the fire, of course, so not all of that spending is related to trans civil rights, but it’s plain that both organizations are deploying a concerted digital paid media strategy on the issue. The ACLU is actually the biggest political advertiser targeting Arkansas so far this year, as they’ve spent about $24k targeting audiences in the state on Facebook, and the Human Rights Campaign has spent over $5k reaching Arkansans. 

For example, these two Facebook ads are specifically targeted to Arkansans, and FWIW, ACLU’s ads seem to mostly target women of all ages, whereas the Human Rights Campaign ads largely target Arkansans aged 34 and younger.

The ACLU also ran ads targeting Arkansans on Instagram, and the Human Rights Campaign has also been running ads targeting other states advocating against copycat bills there, like SB 10 in Alabama and SB 1311 in Texas.

Other organizations and campaigns that have been running ads against these types of bills include The Campaign for Southern Equality, the Trevor Project, Freedom for All Americans, and Equality Kansas, to name a few.

Meanwhile, groups on the Right supporting these transphobic bills haven’t used digital ads at quite the same scale. Local Republican parties and lawmakers have attempted to energize their base on the issue, as have legacy religious right groups.

Republicans have attempted to frame the entire issue of transgender rights around “saving women’s sports.” PragerU spent nearly $40,000 running the below ad nationwide, and Gov. Kristi Noem’s re-election campaign has spent up to $15k on this very lame attempt at acquiring email addresses, mostly targeting middle-aged men. (Read more in Media Matters about how PragerU is using YouTube to fundraise off of their transphobic videos.)

We also found at least five members of Congress and other down-ballot candidates have run ads with the same messaging in the past month, including Sen. Roger Marshall (R-KS), Rep. Lauren Boebert, Rep. Jerry Carl (R-AL), former Ambassador to Slovenia and candidate for U.S. Senate in Alabama Lynda Blanchard, and Florida State Rep. Jason Shaof (R-Port St. Joe).

Organizing on social media

Tell us if you’ve heard this one before - conservative pundits have been racking up lots of engagement on Facebook using transphobic rhetoric. Posts on the platform that mention “transgender” have generated over 40 million interactions in the past month, and the top three posts that mention it - from Franklin Graham and Ben Shapiro, of course - have alone gotten over 1 million interactions in total. 

This message focus from Fox News and other right-wing outlets indicates to us that they are trying to rile up their followers about anything other than the Biden administration’s early successes (including the absurdly popular American Jobs Plan). As our friend Dan Pfieffer reminded us in his latest Message Box newsletter: “social issues unite Republicans, while economic issues divide them.”

While these hate-filled voices are as prominent as ever on Facebook, trans activists and allies have been organizing on Instagram too. Here’s a breakdown of the top posts about transgender issues on Facebook and Instagram from the past month according to data from CrowdTangle:

It’s unlikely that GOP state lawmakers’ push for transphobic laws was timed to coincide with International Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31, but the two occuring around the same time allowed the trans community and advocates to galvanize and organize on that day. Celebrities with huge followings on the platform like Ariana Grande, Bella Hadid, and Brandon Flynn (of “13 Reasons Why” fame) have been raising awareness for the trans community and directing folks to ACLU’s actions. 

We’d also like to shout-out and thank groups like Lambda Legal, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Trevor Project, GLAAD, and so many others for putting in the work to protect our trans brothers, sisters, and non-binary compatriots in the face of such rampant hatred and fear. ✊

Finally, we’d be remiss to mention that last month’s viral video of a Missouri father begging legislators to let his young trans daughter play sports with her friends got millions of views across platforms. The ACLU’s Instagram post of his testimony got over 4 million views alone. If you haven’t seen it yet, we strongly encourage you do - it didn’t go viral for nothing. 😭

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