For years, right-wing commentator, Daily Wire host, and all-around shitty provocateur Matt Walsh has used his platform to go after trans people. So it’s not surprising that this essentialist ideology has become the centerpiece of his new documentary, What Is a Woman? The film, which premiered on the Daily Wire’s website earlier this month, faced controversy leading up to its release. Now, the Daily Wire has bought ads on major social media platforms like TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram, to promote the film — and so far, even though the documentary seems to violate TikTok and Meta’s policies against hate speech. Though the platforms prohibit dehumanizing, mocking, and/or hateful speech about transgender people, the ads have been allowed to stay.
Since coming onto the conservative scene in 2014, Walsh has continuously made harmful comments about the LGBTQ community on multiple platforms. Last year, he published a transphobic children’s book called Johnny The Walrus and vowed in January to “wage an all-out assault on gender ideology.” The new documentary continues to push this narrative by masquerading behind trying to “uncover the truth” of what makes someone a woman. In his usual condescending deadpan, Walsh interviews academics, psychologists, and trans people themselves about transitioning and asking people how they know they are a woman. He attends a women’s rights march trying to find the answer and even makes his way to Africa to ask a tribe of men how a woman is defined. When reached for comment, a rep for the Daily Wire said, “We are proud of the documentary and stand by it.”
The ads started appearing on people’s feeds shortly after the documentary’s June 1 release. On TikTok, an ad for the documentary popped up on “For You” pages with the “Promoted” sticker. Facebook’s Ad Library, which shows how much an advertiser spent on a specific ad, says that The Daily Wire is estimated to spend around $500,000 to promote the documentary. For just one ad, the library shows Walsh and his team spent an estimated $175,000 to $200,000. Other ads range from $200 to $80,000. (Reps for TikTok did not respond to a request for comment. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, referred Rolling Stone to their terms of service but was not able to provide comment in time for publication.)
National LGBTQ organization GLAAD feels that it’s contradictory for these platforms to allow these sorts of ads, especially during a time when they claim to be uplifting and highlighting queer content. “Social media companies are in the midst of honoring Pride month by loudly sharing how they support LGBTQ people, while simultaneously profiting off of ads for a video project that is built off of lies and misinformation about our community,” a spokesperson for the organization tells Rolling Stone. “These platforms can and must do more to take action and enforce their own rules regarding content that violates their own standards of accuracy and safety.”
But the film’s problem lies deeper than Walsh’s attempt to belittle an already targeted group of people — it’s that many of the trans people interviewed in the film only seem to find out halfway through what kind of pundit they’re talking to. Earlier this year, trans activists said that members of his production staff had reached out to them without disclosing that they were connected to Walsh, or to the Ben Shapiro-founded site.
According to those who spoke to Rolling Stone, when the film crew contacted prominent LGBTQ activists such as Eli Erlick, MMA fighter Alana McLaughlin, and Debi Jackson, the mother of Avery Jackson — the first transgender person to be on the cover of National Geographic — to be part of the project, they described it as a film “exploring the real lives of people in the LGBTQIA+ communities.”
Erlick was the first to call out Walsh and his team about what she claims were deceptive practices to encourage participation. Erlick, who is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the founder of the Trans Student Educational Resources organization, tells Rolling Stone that Walsh’s team reached out to her twice — once in July 2021 and then in February. The emails came from someone going by the name Makenna Lynn, about participating in a documentary for something called the Gender Unity Project. Erlick found that the organization’s LLC was made under Justin Folk — a documentarian who has worked on projects for Walsh. After speaking with Lynn, Erlick began putting the pieces together, which she laid out in a Twitter thread in February, in which she revealed that Lynn was actually Makenna Lynn Waters, a producer on The Matt Walsh Show. (The Daily Wire did not respond to requests for comment about these alleged practices.) Erlick said she wanted to publicize this because at least 10 people reached out after her post that said Walsh’s team approached them.
“I knew that it was bigger than me, and it was even bigger than Matt Walsh,” she tells Rolling Stone, adding that responding was a catch-22. “If we publicize it, then you’re getting Matt Walsh a lot of free publicity; if we don’t publicize it, there are going to be a lot more trans people scammed… I figured that it ultimately would be worth it to protect other trans people.”
After the documentary came out, Erlick tells RS she watched the film and feels that “to believe what’s in it requires a fantastical hatred of trans people” and that the film shows an “appalling lack of research on the trans community.” Still, the ease with which the Daily Wire is allowed to promote this project through ads across multiple platforms is telling of the social media companies’ priorities during Pride month — or any month.