An international study conducted by the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism (GPAHE) in 2022 and 2023 delved into online search engine results for isiZulu LGBTIQ+ terms, revealing an “astonishing” amount of disinformation and disparaging content.
This research aims to combat the harm inflicted by false and dangerous information surrounding conversion therapy – the misguided practice of attempting to alter an LGBTIQ+ person’s sexuality or gender identity.
Global Research Highlights Persisting Challenges
The study scrutinised conversion therapy information on prominent platforms, including Google, Bing, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.
Despite some platforms claiming to have banned or reduced content promoting the practice, the study found it to still be alarmingly prevalent in 2022. Even major platforms harboured accounts of conversion therapy providers and proponents, perpetuating harmful narratives.
In 2023, GPAHE extended its research to additional African countries, including South Africa, where it concentrated solely on isiZulu search results.
South African Focus: Disheartening Revelations in isiZulu LGBTIQ+ Search Results
By searching terms like “Ubutabane” and “Ubungqingili” (homosexuality), and “Ukukhipha ubutabane” and “Ukushintsha ubutabane” (conversion therapy) the study aimed to shed light on the conversion therapy content found through search engines.
While LGBTIQ+ South Africans enjoy legal protections, the research uncovered that they face dehumanisation and “horrible disparagement” online. The researchers expressed profound concern over the sheer volume of disinformation circulating about the LGBTIQ+ community and conversion therapy.
isiZulu LGBTIQ+ search results often included links to religious content condemning homosexuality as immoral, sinful and ungodly as well as articles asserting that homosexuality is un-African and something imposed by Western countries onto the continent.
The researchers also found limited authoritative search results in isiZulu communicating that conversion therapy has been denounced by most medical and psychiatric professional organisations.
Challenges and Recommendations for Tech Companies
GPAHE’s research pointed out deficiencies in all tech and social media platforms, with YouTube standing out as a major concern. The researchers highlighted improvements in English and Spanish search results but stressed the need for tech companies to address the stark disparities observed in non-English languages.
The researchers called on tech companies to use common sense when evaluating whether content violates rules on conversion therapy and to invest in non-English, non-American cultural and language resources.
They also called on companies to “elevate authoritative resources in the language being used.”
Conversion Therapy: Ineffective and Harmful
Despite being banned, primarily for minors, in various countries, conversion therapy remains legal in South Africa.
The practice is rooted in the false belief that homosexuality or being transgender is immoral, an illness, or a deviation. It can involve methods ranging from prayer and exorcism to counselling, psychotherapy, hypnosis, and even physical abuse and the use of electric shocks.
Mental health and human rights groups, including the World Psychiatric Association, have discredited conversion therapy as ineffective and deeply harmful, linking it to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, homelessness, and suicide.