«You Are Either Russian or Gay.» Exploring Russian LGBTIQ+ Disinformation on Social Media
Українською текст читайте тут.
In light of the current full-scale war waged by Russia against Ukraine, Detector Media systematically analyses Russian disinformation in Ukrainian and Russian social media segments and has noticed an increase in the number of references and manipulations related to LGBTIQ+ topics (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, etc.) The increase concerns manipulations regarding LGBTIQ+ people serving in the Ukrainian army, the statement that Ukraine is destined for defeat because homosexuals rule it, etc. Detector Media analyzed Ukrainian and Russian social media segments to find out in what context pro-Russian users mentioned LGBTIQ+ people and what messages about them were spread the most often.
Read the study on gender-based Russian disinformation here.
Olha Bilousenko, Oleksiy Pivtorak, Orest Slyvenko, and Ksenia Iliuk conducted the study.
What is LGBTIQ+ disinformation?
The European Parliament’s report “Disinformation campaigns about LGBTI+ people in the EU and foreign influence” defines LGBTIQ+ disinformation as “verifiably false or misleading information about sexual orientation or gender identity that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public.” According to the report, disinformation related to LGBTI+ issues is disseminated with the intention to take advantage of the social polarisation pertaining to the rights of LGBTIQ+ people, which in turn can incite hatred toward LGBTIQ+ people and provoke hate crimes. In particular, LGBTIQ+ disinformation often contains an element of hate speech. The report explains that, for example, Russia often uses LGBTIQ+ disinformation to weaken the influence and importance of the EU and NATO. Equal rights for LGBTIQ+ people is a topic for provoking friction between EU member states. In addition, according to the Princeton University (USA) study “Trends in Online Foreign Influence Efforts,” Russia is a global leader in the use of disinformation on the Internet as part of influence campaigns. According to the research, it is responsible for 62% of efforts to influence the internal affairs of other countries.
Pro-Russian social media users are trying to discredit European states and international organizations in various ways, taking advantage of the high level of homophobia in Russian society.
In this study, Detector Media examines the relationship between LGBTIQ+ disinformation and Russian propaganda machine on social media.
Detector Media analyzed over 80 thousand posts on Ukrainian and Russian segments of Facebook, YouTube, Telegram, and Twitter, collected by LetsData and Semantrum services. By Ukrainian and Russian segments, we mean posts of profiles, pages, groups, and channels located in Ukraine or Russia, respectively, or indicating their location as Ukraine or Russia.
Monitoring period: February 28 — September 28, 2022.
Read more about the methodology of data acquisition and processing here.
Who are pro-Russian social media users
We define pro-Russian social media users as those whose pages post content incorporating Russian propaganda and disinformation narratives. Particularly those who support the war in Ukraine, justify it, accuse the governments of the “West” of military actions, etc. For example, let’s take a Twitter user, allegedly from Kropyvnytskyi, Ukraine, with the nickname “SOS” (@4sWCi2Zv6lH0yD6). This user constantly posts photos and stories from the lives of Soviet celebrities, about the good life in the USSR and the hopeless life in independent Ukraine. Most of the posts are retweets. Their number reaches several dozen per day. Between these nostalgic retweets, there are occasional retweets of tweets from the Russian media outlet that reports on Ukraine, Ukraine.ru, which is known for regularly spreading Russian disinformation or Russian military propaganda. Among the propaganda slogans, some posts are shared verbatim by several Twitter users simultaneously.
Another example is the Facebook user Jelena Lenusik. Specifically, she shared a post that at the NATO military air base in Estonia, recruits are “treated with homoerotica” so that, allegedly, they can become gay. In addition to homophobic posts on the user’s page, you can find posts suggesting that Estonia should abandon anti-Russian sanctions, or reposts from various Russian groups, such as “Russian Estonia”. This group criticizes the current Estonian government and expresses its support for Russia, for example, in posts about lifting sanctions.
All quotes from pro-Russian users in the study were originally written in Russian. However, for the convenience of readers, we have translated them into English.
LGBTIQ+ discourse in the context of the study
Homophobia in Russian society and the authorities is nothing new. For example, in 2013, Russia adopted a law banning the so-called “propaganda of homosexuality”. This legislative initiative was allegedly aimed at “protecting children from information that is harmful to their health and development.” Also, as LGBTIQ+ activist Dzvenislava Shcherba writes in her column, homophobia was used to discredit opposition movements. That is, being an LGBTIQ+ person in Russia is utterly unacceptable, and being out of the closet may constitute so-called propaganda, which is even illegal. This attitude towards LGBTIQ+ people explains why Russian propaganda uses sexual orientation and gender identity to discredit certain people, organizations, or countries.
Posts containing elements of homophobia were found in both Russian and Ukrainian social media segments. However, in all four analyzed social networks, there were more posts humiliating representatives of the LGBTIQ+ community, calling them slurs, etc., in the Russian segment than in the Ukrainian one. While in the Ukrainian segment, users most often mentioned LGBTIQ+ people in the context of pride parades or the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, in the Russian segment, belonging to the LGBTIQ+ community was perceived exclusively as a negative fact. In particular, many posts in the Russian segment concerned NATO, the United States, and the European Union. For example, to discredit NATO as an organization, users of the Russian social media segment called it a “gay alliance”, and referred to all NATO military personnel as gays incapable of defending themselves. That is, in the Russian segment, the abbreviation LGBTIQ+ and the words “gay”, “lesbian”, and other derivatives were used to ridicule or humiliate a person, organization, or phenomenon. Instead, in the Ukrainian one, despite the presence of homophobia, many posts were about the observance of the rights of LGBTIQ+ people. In particular, the users discussed the legalization of same-sex marriages in Ukraine in the light of war, the need to hold pride parades during the war, LGBTIQ+ people in the army and their rights, etc.
Features of LGBTIQ+ disinformation on each social network
The Russian and Ukrainian Telegram segments contained many posts with insults against LGBTIQ+ people. In particular, many posts ridiculed representatives of the LGBTIQ+ community; some of the posts stated that all countries or organizations involving LGBTIQ+ people were doomed to failure.
There are fewer homophobic posts by pro-Russian users on Facebook compared to Telegram. However, it was on Facebook that posts from Ukrainian users received a lot of attention, stating that holding Kyiv Pride in Warsaw would spoil relations between Poland and Ukraine.
Tweets of Russian and Ukrainian users analyzed in the study, not only those who spread pro-Russian rhetoric, can be divided into four groups: jokes about LGBTIQ+ people, insults directed at them, attempts to insult opponents with words related to LGBTIQ+ people, propaganda of “traditional values” and tweets of support for LGBTIQ+ people.
Propaganda messages related to LGBTIQ+ topics were also documented on YouTube. For example, that LGBTIQ+ is Europe’s disease, or that NATO is an LGBTIQ+ alliance. Most often, users emphasized that Europe has been rendered powerless by it. Pro-Russian users also claimed that the Ukrainian military is allegedly suffering defeats precisely because of the presence of LGBTIQ+ people in the army. There was no homophobia on the part of Ukrainian readers about the “diseased” Europe or the “impaired” servicemen of the Ukrainian military.
Main points of propaganda identified during the study
“LGBTIQ+ is not normal”
“LGBTIQ+ is not something to be proud of, it’s not normal,” pro-Russian social media users claimed in their posts. They even wrote, “You are either Russian or gay”. Representatives of the LGBTIQ+ community were called “perverts”, “sick people”, “scum ”, “f*ggots”, “disabled”, etc. In the minds of a typical pro-Russian social media user, representatives of the LGBTIQ+ community are subhumans who want all Russian children to join their cause; lead humanity to extinction; infect everyone with AIDS. And also, judging by the analyzed posts, they are “weak”, “scary”, and “worthless”, so every LGBTIQ+ soldier from NATO, according to such users, can be easily defeated by any Russian soldier.
“Europe is sick”
Many posts of pro-Russian users concerned the so-called decay and rise of depravity in European countries. They say that European countries are sick, because people there support LGBTIQ+ values, allow LGBTIQ+ representatives to hold power, and do not hesitate to speak openly about their orientation or identity. According to pro-Russian social media users, such behavior is unacceptable and tolerates “unhealthy values”. “Do all residents of Western countries support the LGBTIQ+ movement, and if not, how many sane people are left there?” asked one poster.
“Europe is sick. A critical level of destruction of traditional values”, “Even Catholics are pro-f*ggot in, although why am I surprised! Gayropa and in Africa gayropa”, - pro-Russian users claimed.
Pro-Russian users often tried to find a way to justify this “terrible” situation in terms of values. They claimed that things had become this way because even “Catholics have gone wild”, and such people, gay or transgender persons, were now ruling these countries. “We are offered to live in an upside-down world, where smoking a cigarette near a medical institution is a crime. And the fact that children are injected with hormone blockers in this medical institution is not a crime,” they wrote on social media.
Some even argued that Europe’s policies are leading humanity to extinction. “Gayrope with childless presidents who support LGBT, parent number one, parent number 2, and “it” instead of “mom” and “dad”, “son” and “daughter”. Such policies lead to extinction,” the post reads.
Such messages are helpful for Russian propaganda because they fuel the narrative that the West is rotting: everything is terrible there, and everyone ignores the so-called traditional values. This situation in the West, ruled by LGBTIQ+ people, who are so much hated by Russian society, is contrasted with the proper and traditional situation in Russia. Since the level of intolerance towards LGBTIQ+ people in Russian society is high, as evidenced, in particular, by the Russians’ support of the new draft law banning “LGBTIQ+ propaganda”, being LGBTIQ+ is considered to be something unacceptable; something that discredits a person; something that makes a person “wrong”. With the help of such messages, propagandists ridicule and belittle European citizens.
“NATO is an LGBTIQ+ alliance”
Pro-Russian social media users devoted many of their posts to the topic of NATO and the fact that the Alliance’s troops are allegedly incapable of fighting the Russian army because they consist entirely of gays. This statement also stems from the narrative that representatives of the LGBTIQ+ community, in the eyes of Russian propagandists, are subhuman. Consequently, any organization they are a part of will become weak by default, according to propagandists. In particular, pro-Russian users referred to this statement as an explanation as to why NATO isn't fighting in Ukraine. “NATO soldiers... These f*ggots cannot openly fight against Russia, so they send their weapons and meat for disposal to a landfill called Ukraine,” the post reads.
NATO was also often called the “LGBTIQ+ alliance”, as if only gays were part of the Alliance’s troops. “Wankers! Europe and NATO are one single LGBT. The shame of the planet!” pro-Russian users wrote.
“Russia in Ukraine is fighting against NATO and LGBT”
Pro-Russian users often explained the willingness of Russians to fight in Ukraine as the fight against LGBTIQ+ people, with which Ukraine allegedly has ties. “Everyone has the same motivation: as Volozhanin often repeats, volunteers “defend their homeland from fascists” and fight against NATO and LGBT.” They also called it a success that because of the war, LGBTIQ+ pride wasn’t held in Kyiv. “In normal countries, gay rights end where the rights of people not to know about gay rights begin. Because of Russia’s military presence in Ukraine, gay pride, an already joint one, is now held only in Poland. It is worth recalling that the LGBTIQ+ parade has nothing to do with the rights of sexual minorities and their protection. It is just LGBT propaganda, an aggressive and intrusive one at that,” the messages read.
There have been cases when the presence of LGBTIQ+ people in the Ukrainian army was explained by the fact that “Ukrainians and their American and British curators think that Russians, seeing unicorns on the shoulder straps of Ukrainian soldiers, will start running away, because they are facing sodomites. But we want to disappoint Ukrainians and their coaches from Washington and London. Sodomites will be met with contempt and laughter.”
Propagandists use such messages to justify the war in Ukraine in the eyes of Russian society, or rather, to explain its necessity. They say that Ukraine and Ukrainians, which Russians call a fraternal people, are being dragged into the grip of the hateful LGBT-NATO, from which the country must be saved, no matter how.
“The leadership of Ukraine are homosexual”
“Liusia is the first Ukrainian transgender president. The capital of the world’s LGBTIQ+ moves from the Netherlands to Kyiv,” pro-Russian social media users posted. Calling Ukrainian politicians gay has been a common tactic of Russian propaganda. Therefore, during this monitoring, the analysts frequently encountered posts claiming that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his team are representatives of the LGBTIQ+ community. Claims that all representatives of the Ukrainian authorities are homosexuals stem from the narrative that Ukraine has been “captured by “Gayrope” and “LGBT-NATO”. Posts like this are intended to discredit the Ukrainian leadership in the eyes of society. They claim that LGBTIQ+ people are unfit to rule the country, it is unacceptable, and that such policies will “lead to extinction”. “It turns out that only gays and lesbians are in power, and they do not care about the country in which they live,” the posts read. Here is another notable example, “You have an impudent, cruel king in power — a murderer of the Ukrainian people. With a gang of neuro-lingvistic programmers such as Arestovych and other LGBTIQ+ scum.” By the way, propagandists have been spreading videos allegedly confirming that Oleksiy Arestovych was gay since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. His sexual orientation was also discussed on Russian talk shows. In this way, they tried to discredit the politician, who, according to Olga Skabeeva, shapes the narratives in Ukraine.
“Ukrainian Armed Forces is the place for gays”
“If you’re a f*ggot, the Armed Forces of Ukraine are just right for you,” read the messages encountered during the study. Pro-Russian social media users tried to discredit not only the NATO military, accusing them of “unacceptable sexual orientation”, but the Ukrainian army as well, which successfully stood up to the Russian invaders. In particular, they claimed that many Ukrainian soldiers have AIDS because they are gay. Among the messages, there were also statements that “for a normal healthy person to serve in this gay heaven is just incredibly shameful”. Alternatively, pro-Russian users assured that “Ukraine is actively moving to NATO standards in the army, because a foreign mercenary from France, Hugo Aouar, was spotted in the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. This individual is known as an openly gay, LGBTIQ+ advocate and eco-activist. The Ukrainian Armed Forces are switching to the NATO caliber not only in terms of weapons, but also in terms of the quality of soldiers.”
Russian propaganda spread messages about “columns of Ukrainian gays” being sent to the frontline long before the full-scale invasion. This narrative was repeatedly documented by analysts of “Detector Media” already during the full-scale war. According to the propaganda, no one is left to fight in Ukraine, so gays, lesbians, and transgender people are being drafted into the army. Speaking about LGBTIQ+ people, propagandists pay attention solely to their sexual orientation, ignoring that LGBTIQ+ people can also be specialists in various fields, the same as heterosexual and cisgender people.
In fact, LGBTIQ+ people have served in the Ukrainian army for a long time. Still, military registration and enlistment offices do not ask about sexual orientation because they don’t use it to select people for the army. On the contrary, paying attention to sexual orientation can be considered discrimination.
Although LGBTIQ+ soldiers also defend Ukraine on the battlefield, they are sometimes harassed. For example, there was a case of assault on soldier Viktor Pylypenko motivated by hatred for his sexual orientation. However, such cases are isolated, and the attitude towards the LGBTIQ+ military in Ukraine is gradually changing in the context of the great war. This is evidenced by the fact that in a short time, the petition for legalizing same-sex marriage in Ukraine gained the necessary 25 thousand votes for consideration. “At this time, every day can be the last. Let people of the same sex have the opportunity to create a family and have an official document confirming this. They need the same rights as traditional couples,” the petition reads.
However, Russian propaganda further claims that the Ukrainian army recruits “subhumans”, meaning representatives of the LGBTIQ+ community, because “they are running out of normal people, and there will be no one left to fight”. Also, propagandists use such messages to portray the Ukrainian army as weak. “There is a question: did Azov recruit only f*aggots and other biowaste purely out of principle?” the messages read.
“Ukrainians die for LGBTIQ+ parades”
“What are you, Ukrainians, fighting for?” ask pro-Russian social media users. They claim that Ukrainians are dying in droves just for the chance to attend gay pride parades. “The Russian army in Pisky shelled the positions of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. More than 300 people from the Ukrainian army were burned alive. An inglorious death for the sake of LGBT parades,” pro-Russian users wrote.
Some posts claim that Ukrainians are dying in vain because “gay parades” are not worth so many deaths. Ukraine’s independence itself is allegedly worthless because everything in the country has long been stolen, with the blame put on Russia.
In fact, Ukraine is fighting for its independence precisely because Russia is the aggressor state that attacked Ukraine, occupied part of its territory, and destroyed Ukrainian cities and villages, killing soldiers and civilians alike. Instead, during the monitoring, there were posts justifying Russia’s motivation in this war. “Russia is at war against the rainbow USA and Europe. What is happening now in world geopolitics is Russia’s ultimatum against the rainbow USA and NATO,” said the author.
Propagandists need such messages to undermine the resistance of Ukrainians, to convince them that an “illusory goal” is not worth the losses that Ukraine is already suffering and may yet suffer in the war.
Use of offensive words in the context of LGBTIQ+ disinformation
During the analysis of the data in both the Russian and Ukrainian social media segments, the words “Gayrope”, “Eurogays”, “UN Gay Assembly”, “Gay Secretary of the Council of Europe”, “hoholf*aggots”, “Katriarch F*aggotril”, “Gayermak” were often used. Some social media users employ such combinations of slurs regularly as complete substitutes for real place names, positions, institutions, or proper names in an attempt to humiliate or ridicule their opponents.
All this shows that some words used to describe representatives of the LGBTIQ+ community have become profanities over time. For example, as Lesia Stavytska wrote in the Ukrainian Language Without Taboos dictionary, the word pidar (f*ggot) has two meanings: homosexual, and a worthless person. Social media users seem to separate these two meanings clearly. They almost always use the word “f*ggot” in its second meaning. Equally common is the use of terms related to LGBTIQ+ to humiliate people: “Elton John is gay. And Zelensky is just a f*ggot,” a pro-Russian user tweeted. Or as an insult for a political opponent: “F*ck off, f*ggot. Zebaboon scum”.
Russian and pro-Russian social media users also utilize such language in historical discussions to accuse their opponents of crimes or disabilities: “When a person says or writes that he hates the Bolsheviks and communism, I immediately think about the reason for his fear and who he is: an LGBTIQ+ representative, a bribe-taker, an embezzler, a drug addict, a pedophile, a fraudster, an academic impostor, an art degenerate, a swindler, a fascist or a banal fool?”.
Ukrainian and Russian social media users employ similar language toward the military involved in the Russo-Ukrainian war. For example, both sides call their opponents “f*ggots”.
Other findings of the study
In the Ukrainian social media segment, there were also positive trends in attitudes toward representatives of the LGBTIQ+ community. In particular, there were statements that the war pushed Ukraine towards European integration because already during the full-scale war, Ukraine ratified the Istanbul Convention, which was halted for a long time by conservatives who viewed it as “propaganda of gender and LGBTIQ+ values”; collected signatures under a petition to legalize same-sex marriage as part of protecting the rights of LGBTIQ+ people who defend Ukraine.
There were also conclusions that Ukraine is no longer homophobic. However, there were also manifestations of homophobia in the Ukrainian social media sector, although in much lower numbers than in the Russian one. In particular, many homophobic posts concerned the Istanbul Convention. “The Istanbul Convention is evil, now a man can avoid mobilization by pretending to be transgender”; “The President signed the law on ratification, and for the first time in Ukraine, discrimination against men in Ukraine was legalized at the international level,” the post read.
A few posts appeared alongside news about Kyiv Pride in Warsaw. They said that by holding a march for the rights of LGBTIQ+ people in Poland, Ukrainians would start a conflict between the two countries, and Poland would stop supporting us in the war. In some posts, users denied that there were LGBTIQ+ representatives in the Ukrainian army and claimed that “LGBTIQ+ men, not having the courage, are trying to escape from Ukraine, posing as women”.
Also, among the analyzed data, many joking posts mentioned sexual orientation. “How can they mistreat LGBTIQ+ people in a country where Verka Serduchka exists? Hello, Elijah, we f*cking grew up on LGBT, it’s a part of our culture,” a Twitter user wrote at the end of August 2022 to prove to her opponent that Ukrainians have no reason to argue about the attitude towards LGBTIQ+ people.
Users also posted jokes about LGBTIQ+ people to show the absurdity of the positions of supporters of traditional views that being gay is a conscious choice, not a biologically determined phenomenon: “Are you still gay? No, goddamnit, I didn’t pay my subscription fee this month and I’ll get banned from “the LGBTIQ+ network”.
At the same time, the jokes of the majority of Russian and pro-Russian social media users are limited to Russian propaganda rhetoric and use the exact wording or information about “Nazis”, “gay Zelenskyy”, “Liusia Arestovych”, etc. Here is an example of a tweet like this: “After the legalization of gay marriage. A sequel to Brokeback Mountain is planned in Ukraine: Brokeback Mountain 2: Servant of the People is the story of the dashing pig butcher Volodymyr, who rushes to his beloved Liusia through a hail of shells.” Or this example of the poetic talent of a Russian Twitter user: “A little boy was throwing a Nazi salute. He licked Grandpa Biden’s ass. He sold his asshole in Gayrope. He also gave it to the local Nazis”.
By spreading LGBTIQ+ disinformation in Ukraine, Russian propaganda seeks to discredit Western states, their policies, and international associations. In particular, the EU and NATO. Using homophobia as a lever, propagandists spread disinformation that humiliates representatives of the LGBTIQ+ community; devalues their role in society; stigmatizes such people based solely on sexual orientation. Often in disinformation cases, propagandists would call a person, for example, a high-ranking official, gay in an attempt to ridicule and portray him as incompetent. This is intended to undermine his reputation. In such cases, “gay” is not only a word that denotes a man’s homosexual orientation but also implies weakness and inferiority.
Similarly, this tactic works to undermine not only specific individuals — country leaders, etc., but also Western governments or large international organizations. Consequently, Russia uses the negative attitude towards LGBTIQ+ people, particularly in Russian society, to create the impression that the West is in a state of decay, which might lead to humanity's end, or at the very least, the destruction of the traditional family institution. The Russian government needs this itopolarize society and undermine the authority of Western governments, claiming they cannot effectively govern the countries due to their support for LGBTIQ+ rights. The NATO army becomes weak, unable to repel an aggressor because it has so many LGBTIQ+ people.
However, such propaganda methods would not work if the level of homophobia in Russian and Ukrainian societies was lower and if people were more tolerant of otherness. According to a sociological survey conducted by the Ukrainian National Democratic Institute on August 2-9, 2022, only 31% of respondents in Ukraine believed that homosexual people should have the same rights as heterosexual people. 19% of respondents strongly opposed equal rights. These data indicate that Ukrainian society is changing and becoming more tolerant. Kyiv International Institute of Sociology conducted a survey in 2022, which confirms the trend. Activists of the Nash Svit LGBTIQ+ human rights center compared the results with a similar study conducted in 2016. It turned out that over six years in Ukraine, the number of people who have a negative attitude towards LGBTIQ+ people has decreased by half: in 2016, 60.4% had a negative attitude, and 38.2% in 2022.
In Russia, homophobia, or the so-called “fight against LGBT propaganda”, is part of national policy. According to the Yuri Levada Analytical Center, as of October 2021, 28% of Russian women believed that they have the right to same-sex relationships, 66% were convinced that they do not; among men, these figures are 28 and 73 percent. Despite this, on October 27, 2022, the Russian State Duma deputies passed a law banning the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” in Russia. All 400 deputies present at the meeting supported it. According to co-author of the bill Nina Ostanina, Russian deputies, adopting such laws, respond to the ideological war waged against Russia. Prohibiting “LGBT propaganda” is not a new step for Russia. Laws on this have been in place since 2013, but the recent amendments prohibit “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” now among adult Russian citizens, not just children. The Russian president and other high-ranking officials occasionally make homophobic statements.
With the help of disinformation about LGBTIQ+ people, Russia broadcasts its “values” not only to Russian society but also beyond its borders. According to a study, this is crucial to achieving Russia's geopolitical goals. Russian propaganda undermines the democratic system using LGBTIQ+ disinformation, contrasting it with the traditionalist “Russian world”.
This study was carried out with the support of the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation, German Marshall Fund of the United States. Opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent those of the Black Sea Trust or its partners.”.
Visualizations and main photo: Nataliya Lobach