The team at Edinburgh Zoo were attacked online for their support of LGBTQ+ rights.
The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) and its team are continuing to recover following what was described as a “barrage of hate” directed at them via social media.
The charity, which operates Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park, saw the Twitter account of their site in the capital become the focus of thousands of anti-LGBTQ+ comments after sharing a post celebrating Pride.
Representatives from Edinburgh Zoo had travelled to the Edinburgh Pride march, before the team shared photographs and a message recognising the contribution “LGBTQ+ colleagues, members and supporters make… to saving wildlife”.
The charity wrote: “Together, we can create a world where nature is protected, valued and loved.”
Despite their positive and inclusive tone, Edinburgh Zoo were forced to defend their support for LGBTQ+ rights publicly, with the Tweet going viral.
Responses suggesting the charity “support mutilating children”, that support for LGBTQ+ rights is “completely irrelevant and unnecessary” to the work of RZSS, and that the Zoo backed “men who sexually abuse animals”, were just some of the dangerous messages that were shared by Twitter users in response to the original tweet.
Days later, significant attention was still on the charity.
The post has now been viewed more than two million times, with members of staff stepping up to deal with the hate-filled messages and disinformation which was targeted at the Twitter post.
Ben Supple is director of business and engagement at Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. He told TFN: “We’ve attended Pride before and celebrated attending Pride, but we’ve not had this level of negative response. Of course there’s always been some level of negativity, but what set this year apart was the sheer volume of the comments.
“From a staff perspective, it’s vitally important that all of our staff work in a very supportive and inclusive environment. That includes our communications team who have responded with such professionalism and personal empathy whilst also dealing with what can only be described as a barrage of hate.
“It’s very important from our perspective to correct misinformation, to stand up for communities that face discrimination, and emphasise that nature is for everyone. From our perspective, we can do so authentically as we are absolutely committed to making nature more accessible, more diverse, and ensuring there is a strong consistent message saying exactly that.
“So when we receive criticism, which is effectively harassment of other groups, hateful messages that might be perceived as telling certain groups that nature is not for them, we will stand up to that. Now there were some instances when we did delete and hide some comments, but crucially, only when we had made the attempt to have a dialogue, or at the very least state our case.
“Only at the point when it was very clear that there was nothing to be gained by continuing conversations that were either trolling or so wedded to their views that they wouldn’t change. But I like to think that, along the way, we have made some people think about nature.
“We are in a biodiversity crisis, nature is for everyone, so I like to think along the way we might have changed some views.”
The incident came even after protections were put in place by RZSS, who had pre-prepared responses to those who questioned their support of the LGBTQ+ community.
With LGBTQ+ members of staff within the organisation, breaks were also included to ensure that any workers facing the stressful situation could take time away from the screen and recover during the days-long ordeal.
This allowed responses to hateful and misinformed messages and posts to be personalised and accurate - outlining RZSS’ reasons for supporting the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals.
Allie McGregor, senior communications officer at RZSS, was one of the members of staff working to combat the misinformation and abuse levelled at the charity. They told TFN: “We actually posted on our other (RZSS) channels earlier in the month about Pride which had very similar messaging kind of generally acknowledging and celebrating Pride, which did not get much attention, comparatively.
“Prior to any of those posts going out we wrote a social media response guidelines document, which was saying things about how we approach comments such as, if it has hate speech in it, it will be deleted and reported. But ideally we would be responding to things to call out why we think that behaviour or language is unacceptable.
“One of the most important things we’ve learned from this is probably that in future years we would have an even more robust safeguarding policy in place for staff.
“We get negative comments on stuff all the time - although maybe not this personal - so you do develop a certain level of resilience. But I would never expect my team to have to read through the kind of language they were that day. It’s really important to us that anyone can step away when they need to.
“The backing from the organisation as a whole made such a big difference for the staff who were directly affected by this. I think sometimes it’s hard to rally behind your staff that way, but for me personally it really helped to manage my emotional response.”
RZSS said they have attended Edinburgh Pride on previous occasions, and have not faced anything like that level of abuse and misinformation.
But despite the online attacks, those at RZSS have said they have no plans to change their approach, adding that they will travel to Highland Pride with members from the Highland Wildlife Park later this summer.
Allie said: “I’m not any expert in this, but I do have some lived experience and I do follow news around this in a personal capacity. I’d say there are two key things - one is the wider narrative around the LGBTQ+ community, focused on gender, trans and non-binary people.
“There’s a lot of misinformation about those groups, which is really being amplified in certain spaces, getting a lot of traction on social media. It’s an incredibly heated debate for a lot of people, and that always drives and that always drives tension, unfortunately.
Ben added: “I think unfortunately, sadly, this could and probably will happen again. From an RZSS perspective, we will be attending Highland Pride later in July. The advice I would give is that the fundamentals are about being genuine. Charities who are in a position, like RZSS, with strong commitment to supporting all communities - including the LGBTQ+ community - yes there will be difficult circumstances like this, and it’s important to provide as supportive and inclusive an environment as possible.
“I think all efforts to strengthen communities and to stand up for what’s right, taking a stance against harassment is to be supported. I’d absolutely encourage any organisations that might have been inspired by our experience to attend events such as Pride where they feel they are in a genuine and authentic position to do so.”
Ben said he is happy to work with other charities and organisations to share RZSS’ experience and work to ensure that groups can best protect their staff while also underlining their support for the LGBTQ+ community.
Both Ben and Allie also shared their pride at the positive responses the Zoo has seen following the incident, with Edinburgh Zoo now seeing significant numbers of new donations, an uptick in merchandise sold, as well as huge numbers of new followers online.
Allie said: “I think, as hard as it was to get through the negativity, the positivity now far outweighs all of the negative comments we got, even if it’s not in number - although I think it is in that. Just the level of support was incredible.
“And as someone personally impacted by these things, it was very heartening to see that while there’s maybe a very vocal group who aren’t supportive of the whole LGBTQ+ community, there is a much larger number who are incredibly supporting and inclusive.
“For the staff that was really encouraging to see, it’s also really nice to get that level of support as an organisation. It’s maybe not what we expect to get it for as a wildlife conservation charity, but I think that validation that we’re doing the right thing in being vocal about this, standing our ground, and making our views really clear, that was very important to us.
“Being more inclusive and ensuring we are welcoming to as many communities as possible is absolutely crucial to the work we do and even if it’s not so obviously part of the mission, it takes everyone to save nature.
“So reaching this wider group of people who wouldn’t normally engage with us is a huge win and it’s really exciting to see. I hope we can keep building off that, keep building the community, and make sure that those people who now hopefully know that this is a safe and welcoming place for them can keep forming those relationships and see the other amazing work that my colleagues do.
“It’s not just for Pride month, it’s not just the LGBTQ+ community that needs extra support and additional steps to make them feel welcomed into nature conservation spaces. It has been really lovely, like a warm hug.”
Ben said: “In terms of the impact on the charity, we had no hesitation in taking the stance we did, and in fully supporting that stance. Some brands might have shied away from talking about Pride in the way that we did so publicly, some might have looked at the negative comments and decided it wasn’t worth it. But from our point of view it absolutely was.
“The absolutely underlying principle is that nature is for everyone. The LGBTQ+ community faces discrimination. It is important for us to do the right thing and speak up for our values, and living by our values authentically means doing exactly what we’ve done over the past week - standing up for communities that face discrimination.”