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Biden pursues actions on online harassment, LGBTQ issues

The White House is convening a group to tackle online abuse after Biden signed an executive order to protect LGBTQ Americans

President Biden signs an executive order June 15 at a White House event celebrating Pride Month. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

The White House plans to convene a task force Thursday to confront online harassment and abuse, signaling an effort to address a problem that has grown more menacing as sometimes-vitriolic social media posts have become a central way for younger people in particular to communicate.

The move comes a day after President Biden signed an executive order designed to protect LGBTQ Americans, which among other things aims to prevent “conversion therapy” — a widely discredited practice of seeking to change someone’s sexual or gender identity — by directing the Health and Human Services Department to clarify that programs receiving federal funds cannot offer such schemes.

Taken together, the moves reflect an effort by Biden to use his executive authority to take on volatile social issues, including in areas where Congress is unlikely to act, and more directly combat cultural conservatives who have spent months trying to use such issues to rally their base and pass a raft of state laws that the White House considers discriminatory. With the midterm elections approaching and Biden struggling to push legislation through Congress, some activists have pushed him to tackle more issues through unilateral presidential actions.

President Biden signed an executive order on June 15 aiming to prevent conversion therapy and provide other protections to the LGBTQ community. (Video: The Washington Post)

Biden’s Wednesday order was signed during a festive Pride Month reception held in the East Room, where the president railed against some of the state laws. “No one knows better than the people in this room [that] we have a lot more work to do,” he said, remarking on “the ultra-MAGA agenda, attacking families and our freedoms.”

He noted the arrest of more than two dozen members of a white-supremacist group who were near a northern Idaho pride event over the weekend. “They’re disgusting,” Biden said of attacks on LGBTQ people. “And they have to stop.”

Biden’s moves this week are, in part, the latest in a dispute over education, as Republicans seek to restrict schools’ ability to teach about certain issues related to race and sexual orientation in the name of “parents’ rights” and Democrats argue the GOP is seeking to shut down the rights of minority groups.

“We will make sure that parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said recently in signing the state’s Parental Rights in Education bill, which limits discussions of sexual orientation and has earned condemnation from LGBTQ activists, who call it the “don’t say gay” law.

Still, Biden’s ability to effect change through executive edicts is limited. The task force on online harassment, which disproportionally targets women and LGBTQ individuals, will be charged with coming up with proposals within the next six months.

The task force’s first meeting, which Vice President Harris will host and will also include Attorney General Merrick Garland, will launch a process to develop recommendations for governments, technology platforms, schools, and other public and private entities.

“The president made this commitment because in the United States, one in three women under the age of 35 report being sexually harassed online and over half of the LGBTQI-plus individuals report the target of severe online abuse,” said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity ahead of the announcement.

Efforts to regulate online conduct have often been criticized as violations of free speech. Administration officials seemed eager to avoid the earlier troubles of the Disinformation Governance Board, an ill-fated effort by the Department of Homeland Security to combat misinformation that was criticized, especially by conservatives, as an attempt to patrol speech.

“We are particularly focused on online activities that are illegal conduct, such as cyberstalking or nonconsensual distribution of intimate images or targeted harassment,” the administration official said.

“We are very mindful of the of the First Amendment issues,” the official added. “But you know, violent and threatening speech is not protected by the First Amendment. So while we are going to carefully navigate those issues, we’re also going to remain laser-focused on the non-speech aspect.”

In Wednesday’s executive order, Biden directed several government departments, including State and Treasury, to develop plans to combat conversion therapy around the world, in part by ensuring U.S. aid does not go toward funding the practice.

In some ways, the White House is seeking to draw a contrast with former president Donald Trump and the Republican Party, which Democrats depict as intolerant of an array of different groups.

Among Biden’s initiatives this week is a push to bolster suicide-prevention programs and launch a drive to protect such vulnerable populations as foster youths and the homeless. He instructed HHS to issue sample policies for states to use if they seek to expand health-care access.

He also directed the Education Department to address the effects of new state laws that are aimed at changing school curriculums, including by limiting the discussion of issues related to race or sexual orientation.

At Wednesday’s Pride Month event at the White House, Biden was introduced by Javier Gomez, an 18-year-old high school graduate from Florida who helped organize walkouts in protest of the new state law restricting discussions in schools about sexual orientation and gender identity.

“When you’re president and they say, ‘Joe Biden is out in the waiting room,’" Biden told Gomez following his well-received introduction, “promise me you won’t say, ‘Joe who?’”

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